Among the pandemic’s many devastations is its impact on the mental health of children. Parents everywhere are trying their best to help their offspring make sense of our bleeding world.
Counting the dead is an onerous and necessary task. And, in the end, there’s still the living to be reckoned with. As we struggle to assess the true impact of the pandemic in terms of deaths and chronic illnesses, one could be forgiven for overlooking an area of concern: children’s mental health. Dealing with death on such a vast scale is bad enough. There’s also, however, the isolation that these kids have suffered through the lack of contact with their friends and classmates. And, of course, The Big Bad: the fear that this virus will come for them or their parents next.
From the father of a six-year-old boy comes this: “There was a recent scare with my father-in-law (living 500km away) having a fever for a few days. While waiting for the test results, we were wondering if one of us should drive there and take care of him. My son overheard us and started crying that neither of us should go because he didn’t want us to catch corona. It took a lot of convincing to tell him that we were only planning and nothing was sure yet.”
Another 12-year-old boy, according to his mother, comes and hugs her whenever she sits quietly by herself. Who died, Mama, is his inevitable question. He has become “insecure and clingy,” his mother says. An eight-year-old girl living in Mumbai has, according to her mother, become obsessed with death. Her grandfather succumbed to COVID-related complications recently, and, since then, the little girl has been drawing images of the old man, bedridden, mask in place.
Paranoia, insecurity, confusion and the after-effects of prolonged isolation: these are common ground amid these disparate stories. In bittersweet movies like Life is Beautiful and Jojo Rabbit, there is an element of fabulism in the way information is withheld and/or manipulated to protect the psyches of young children. Today, in the internet era, this is no longer a realistic option. Children above the ages of 12 or so, especially those with ready access to the internet, form their own conclusions, and parents have to find a way to communicate without being patronising.
For Anil, a parent from Ludhiana, this meant explaining to his nine-year-old son why people shouldn’t be celebrating Holi this year. “We watched some YouTube videos together that explained what coronavirus was, how it spreads, its impact on the world. He was initially upset, but he understood why people couldn’t celebrate as usual this year.” One America-based NRI mom spoke about how her 13-year-old daughter was keeping track of COVID-19 fatalities, especially after things started getting really bad in the US. “Instead of stopping her, I asked her to update me. And I chose to stay away from the news. It gave her a sense of control and a sense of contribution to the family in the pandemic.”
Another mother, who lives in Bengaluru, spoke about the questions her children – a daughter in standard four and a son in standard five – posed to her: “What is this virus? How will it affect the body? Why do I have to wear a mask? When can I go outside? When can I go to school?” Even though the children were familiar with the concepts of death and bereavement, the stress got to them after a while. In the middle of a long stretch of life under lockdown, they began to cry. “I had to make up stories, take them to the terrace to show them the stars, the moon, and reassure them. Had to tell them again and again, we are safe, we are together now, and let’s make the most of it,” she says.
Managing a child’s fears while making sure their development as secure adults isn’t stalled – that’s the tightrope parents are currently walking. There’s the very real fear that, with some children, the impact on their mental health could well be long-term. And, while there are limits to what parents can do to limit the damage, most people I spoke to agreed that being rigorously honest was crucial, even if the truth feels too much to stomach sometimes.
“You have to treat them like equals and not little people that you own,” said an Indian-American parent. “NRI parents spend too much time cultivating obedience and respect for the elderly, etc, in their children, often at the expense of their own interests. I’ve told my kids that they don’t have to hug elders or touch their feet and so on if they don’t feel safe.”
As we wait for the COVID dominos to stop falling, we’d do well to remember that our children are inheriting a world ravaged, its fundamentals called into question. The least we can do is to make sure they have all the help they need, as they set about negotiating the much-loathed ‘new normal’.