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Calming anxiety in children as pandemic rewrites the rules

Sunday June 21 2020
BOY

Children in the 13-17 age group are among the worst hit by anxiety during this period, according to Unicef. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By ELVIS ONDIEKI

It is finally dawning on Christine* that the frequent disagreements she is having with her seven-year-old son, might be connected with the boy’s lengthy stay indoors, occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The boy’s irritability and argumentative behaviour seem to be rising every day for the past couple of weeks, and Christine — a working mother in Nairobi who has been mostly indoors since March — now feels it is time to consult an expert.

Elsewhere in Nairobi, a three-year-old girl recently forced her parents to take her to church with her endless crying.

Many jurisdictions across the world have in place one social distancing measure or another, including closure of churches, but there is no way the dumbfounded parents could explain to the sobbing child why they have stayed for a while, without dressing up and heading to church like they had been doing every Sunday.

To assuage the girl’s turmoil, the parents decided to take her to their church. Sight of the building pacified the curious girl.

CRAVES CHURCH

“She has been insisting that we go to church and last Sunday I was forced to take her to an empty church. I could see the joy in her when we got in and later left the church compound,” her mother Monicah Wangui, a journalist, tells Lifestyle.

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But much as she craves church, the girl has developed a strange aversion for the outdoors due to the fear of coronavirus.

“One day, she accompanied me to the parking lot to pick something from the car and I realised she had a lot of fear in her. She could not even walk. I had to carry her back to the house,” recalls Ms Wangui.

The two cases are a small representation of what children are going through in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their plight is often overlooked but, just as adults are affected psychologically, they are also bearing the brunt of the long periods of isolation and staying at home.

We look at five ways the pandemic might be affecting your child and how you can address the challenges.

1 Build-up of anxiety

Children in the 13-17 age group are among the worst hit by anxiety during this period, according to the United Nations Children’s Education Fund (Unicef).

“Being a teenager is difficult no matter what, and the coronavirus disease is making it even harder,” says Unicef in a March 27 post on its website.

“With school closures and cancelled events, many teens are missing out on some of the biggest moments of their young lives — as well as everyday moments like chatting with friends and participating in class,” it adds.

The anxiety can also come from the uncertainty of the moment, as no one is sure when the situation will be put under control.

Dr Eunice Githae, a counselling psychologist who is a lecturer at Kenyatta University, says some of the signs of anxiety in children include clinginess and irritability.

“Some might even bully others,” she says.

Other universal signs of anxiety are tantrums, nightmares, being withdrawn, among others.

For parents to address anxiety in children, experts propose a raft on measures, laying most emphasis on open communication.

Unicef urges children not to get too weary about their anxiety. The organisation has shared the views of American adolescent psychologist Lisa Damour with all teenagers across the globe through the March 27 article.

“Psychologists have long recognised that anxiety is a normal and healthy function, that alerts us to threats and helps us take measures to protect ourselves,” says Dr Damour.

Dr Githae, on her part, asks parents to be exhaustive in the way they communicate with their children. For instance a parent who has been coming home to hugs from her children and now cannot hug them upon return, she said, needs to explain the sudden change.

“This, if not well explained, can be interpreted as rejection. We need to explain to them why we are not hugging or greeting them after work, until we are cleaned up,” she tells Lifestyle.
She also asks parents to provide ways through which children can express their compressed emotional status.

“Let them paint, draw, act, sing, dance or tell a story. This helps them express the pent-up emotions such as anxiety and depression. Once these negative emotions are expressed, the child feels better and may become more cooperative,” says Dr Githae.

2 Feeling ‘imprisoned’

Being the bundles of raw energy that they are, many children are loathing the new order that frowns upon them venturing out to play with their colleagues.

Most residences have banned the playing of children in communal spaces. Equally, a number of shopping centres do not admit children. Tuskys supermarket, for instance, does not admit children aged between two and 12. Amusement parks are also deserted as they are among the places where the coronavirus can be easily transmitted. To add to that, most parents are at home almost around the clock, and that means stricter supervision for the children.

This situation leaves a number of children, previously used to large swathes of playing space, feeling restrained.

To ensure this does not become a problem, Dr Githae advises, parents need to make adjustments.

“Small spaces are a real problem,” she says.

“But for those families with backyards, garages, verandas, study rooms, they can convert these into children corners. For extremely small spaces, create a children’s corner in some part of the house. Relax the ‘messing up’ rules for the kid so that they don’t feel too restricted.”

To ensure children do not feel alienated when parents go shopping and leave them alone at home, Dr Githae urges the limitation of such visits.

“Children love to go out shopping and may feel left out. So, minimise the frequency of shopping visits,” she says.

To avoid making the stay at home look like an abyss, some parents are coming up with work-and-play routines for their children.

Among them is journalist-turned-politician Beauttah Omanga, a father of three. He told Lifestyle that his children have a timetable that runs from 7am when they wake up to 3.30pm when the family goes for a walk then returns for a shower. In between those hours, his children study and take breaks for breakfast and lunch.

“They are so used to it now, though they still miss school. Like at some point they say they miss teachers’ guidance in their learning. They miss playmates too,” Mr Omanga says.
He has created the routine to inculcate a number of values in the children.

“It enables them to stick to a schedule, which will eventually become a culture in them. It will instil the need for time management and helps me mould their behaviour,” notes Mr Omanga, who hails from Nyamira County.

Supporting the need to set a children’s routine is counselling psychologist Esther Mbau, who runs Kipepeo Training Consultants in Nairobi.

She says one robust way that parents can impact their children’s lives at the moment, is to have their own routines and in turn dictate their children’s routines.

“At this point in time, with the pandemic, you need to first put on your own mask. Like we’re told in the aeroplanes, you need to fix your mask before you help someone else. First take care of yourself, create your own routine, decide and be deliberate to have some level of discipline, because our children do what we do; they don’t do what we say,” she says.

3 Too much screen time

Sales executive Lawi Njogu knows that watching too much television is not good for his Grade One daughter but given the prevailing circumstances, he has ceded some ground.

“ No visiting or going out to play with other children. They just have the TV for entertainment and to reduce boredom,” says the father of two, based in Meru.

His is the dilemma many parents are facing. A parent in Nairobi who is currently working from home recently confessed that she is using a spare phone to keep her son busy and thus get time for official engagements.

Ms Mbau, the counselling psychologist, says parents should not compromise about screen time.

“It’s not inevitable that children will be watching a lot of TV or spending a lot of time on their phones. What you need to do as a parent is come up with a routine and a schedule that the children follow day in, day out,” she tells Lifestyle.

“The schedule will also include their screen time, and also you need to talk about how often they can access their phones and go on social media. It should not be a ‘let’s see how the day unfolds’ or ‘anything goes’ kind of attitude. We actually need to create a routine for our children at this point in time,” she adds.

Unicef equally advises children to create a screen-time schedule with their parents.

“It’s not going to be a good idea to have unfettered access to screens and/ or social media. That’s not healthy; that’s not smart. It may amplify your anxiety,” the organisation’s post, citing Dr Damour’s advice, says.

And according to Mr Isaiah Omae, a secondary school teacher at Michinda Boys Secondary School in Nakuru County, screen time may negatively affect a child’s development.

“ Too much time may spoil their eyesight, let alone interfering with their psycho-motor skills. They won’t be creative,” he tells Lifestyle.

Ms Mbau, a mother of three boys aged between five and 15, says the TV set in her home is off until 5pm every day and that she sets an example to her children on usage of phones.

“It goes back to what you as a parent are modelling: Are you always on your phone? Because if you are always on your phone and you are telling your child not to be on their phone all the time, then you are preaching water while you are drinking wine,” says the counsellor.

4 Exposure to predators

The Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) made a terse post on Facebook on May 4 regarding paedophiles who are taking advantage of the prevailing isolation measures to make illicit approaches on children.
“The DCI Child Protection Unit, through online monitoring, analysis and investigations, has noted an increase in digital threats to children during the current stay-at-home order due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” it stated.

It said: “Investigations have revealed several risks that include cyber bullying, sexting, sexual extortion, access to pornography and violent content, identity theft, grooming, among others.”

“DCI detectives are working tirelessly to nab individuals or groups that are engaged in such violations and do hereby advise parents or guardians to reach out to their local DCI offices and file official reports in case of such incidents,” added the crime-busting agency.

Even when accessing the internet sparingly, Ms Mbau says, children can be exposed to criminals within that short window, which is why she calls for vetting of the content they access.

“You need to be very clear with them, set boundaries in terms of how they use social media, set boundaries on when they can communicate with their friends,” she says.

“But it is okay at the end of the day to allow them to watch TV, and times to use the phone.”

Her clarion call to parents is that they should limit screen time and be present for their children.

When the government closed all learning institutions from March 15, a number of vulnerable children who had schools as their rescue centres were forced to head home and that may expose them to habits that harm them mentally and physically.

For instance, there was a group of girls rescued from early marriage who were at Naning’oi Girls School in Kajiado County. During school holidays, they would continue residing at the institution because going back home meant returning to the practices they were trying to avoid. However, they were forced to return to homes as a result of the directive.

5 Vagaries of quarantine

For every confirmed case of Covid-19 in the country, a number of contacts are traced by the government and some are put under quarantine. Children have not been spared.

Quarantine comes with a number of psychological effects including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger — according to an article written by six leading scholars and published in the Lancet journal on March 14.

The researchers stated that some of the factors that lead to stress include being quarantined for longer than expected, fear of infection, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss and stigma.

One of their recommendations was that governments should ensure quarantine conditions are bearable.

“Depriving people of their liberty for the wider public good is often contentious and needs to be handled carefully. If quarantine is essential, then our results suggest that officials should take every measure to ensure that this experience is as tolerable as possible for people,” says the report that analysed trends from various areas across the globe.

“If the quarantine experience is negative, the results of this review suggest there can be long-term consequences that affect not just the people quarantined but also the health-care system that administered the quarantine,” they added.

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