Helping children cope with the lockdown

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The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown have brought a lot of anxiety on people. Besides fear of contracting the virus, the disruptions in routines, work arrangements and social life may all lead to psychological instability.

These COVID-19-induced disruptions have the same effect or even worse on children. Schools were abruptly closed a week before the lockdown, the rules of the lockdown entail that playing with friends is interrupted, social life and holiday visits are disrupted. All this means that the COVID-19 lockdown is probably taking a toll on our children’s mental health even if we may not notice it.

Fortunately, for most parents, the lockdown means that they get to be with their children almost the whole day. However, in order for us to help children to cope with the lockdown, we need something more than just parental presence; there is need for parental involvement. Parents need to understand and get involved in their children’s routines, also understand that your child is affected by this lockdown just as you are, understand that the child needs support and they look up to the parent for guidance and support.

So, how can we help our children cope during the COVID-19 lockdown? Explain the safety measures — do not take it for granted that the child understands your orders. Clearly explain to them why it is necessary to wash their hands regularly and with soap.

Explain to them the necessity of the lockdown, the social distancing and all the regulations put in place to contain the spread of the virus. This obviously means that you as a parent would need to understand the preventive measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus, so that you can explain them easily to the children. Take time to ensure they understand. For younger children, you may need to use illustrations from what they already know to make them understand.

Set routines — It is important to make daily schedules and teach your children to follow the routine. Without a daily schedule, life can be very chaotic especially when we do not know for how long exactly our lives will return to their “normal” state. Children and young people’s lives are punctuated with school time, family time, meal times, play time and bed time. Some of these routines are usually controlled by the school and sometimes by maids. This lockdown means that you now have to take charge and ensure that you not only see that the routine is followed, but you get time to understand your child. This period presents an opportunity for parents to get to understand their children. Make an effort to be involved in all their activities from play, schoolwork up to bed time. At bed time, tell them stories that help to build resilience, patience and good character.

Comfort and reassure. For some adults, it may be difficult to understand what is going on, one can imagine how difficult it should be for children to understand. The good parent acts as their child’s source of comfort and reassurance. Be positive in your explanations to them about what is going on. Remember they watch the news and listen to adult conversations, they hear about people falling ill and dying. Assure them that all will be well as long as they observe the given regulations.

Maximise physical contact where possible — Children just like adults are often soothed by touch. Touch calms the heart rate, and allows children to feel safe, so we can expect them to be more clingy and in need of affection at such unsettling times. It is therefore important to maximise physical contact as much as is possible; give your children hugs, cuddle them, show them that you are there for them.

Continue with schoolwork – while schools have closed, school-going children can continue to learn at home either through online means or through reading their textbooks.

As a parent you need to help your child continue with their education so that when schools reopen they will be fresh and even ahead of the syllabus. Some schools have instituted online methods of learning. Some teachers make use of WhatsApp groups to assist their learners; all these should be utilised to ensure that children continue with their schoolwork.

Where possible, assist your child by giving them tasks and helping them. For secondary school learners, they probably know what is required of them and while you may not be competent to assist them in their subjects, you can still motivate them. Motivate them to keep studying and shift their focus from COVID-19 to their studies. Build their resilience by telling them how they have overcome previous challenges or how other people have gone past challenges, tell them about successful people who have worked hard in difficult times to succeed.

Let them play — Children express themselves through play, they interact and relieve stress through play. Play is a very integral part in the development of children. For those who are fortunate to have space in their yards, let the children go out and play. Even if they cannot play with their friends, they can still enjoy playtime. If you do not have a compound where the children can play outside, allow them to play indoors and once they are done, take an opportunity to teach them how to clean themselves. For older children, their gratification may come from interacting with their friends; this again is not possible in this lockdown. You may need to facilitate that they keep connected with their peers through the phone. Partake in games with your children. Those games that you can engage in as a family will help in bonding the children with their parents.

Answer their questions – Younger children have questions and in times of uncertainty, they have multiple questions actually. Be patient to answer all of them even if you have answered some of them before. Be careful also on the way you answer and make sure you give them the correct information. Younger children tend not to forget what they have been told or answers they have been given for their questions. This is their way of understanding the world around them so you need to be patient with them.

Teach them some skills — The lockdown presents a wonderful opportunity for parents to get to teach their children new skills. Make this period valuable by shifting the attention from COVID-19 to teaching your child something that they will always use in their life. Teach them some simple skills like cooking, some new recipes, something in the garden, in the garage etc.

Keep them occupied and make this period valuable to them and to you.

Finally, in all the uncertainty and gloom that this COVID-19 pandemic has brought, remember you are your child’s source of hope. Be positive, remain optimistic, explain things to them and reassure them that this will come to pass and life will be back to normal.

Herbert Zirima is a registered educational psychologist, a full member of the Zimbabwe psychological association, a senior lecturer and chairperson in the department of psychology at Great Zimbabwe University. He can be contacted at hzirima@gzu.ac.zw