- Children are witnessing devastation closely due to COVID-19: Dr Sen
- Create a safe space for children to express themselves: Dr Sen
- Be composed and respectful while talking about death with kids: Dr Sen
New Delhi: COVID-19 pandemic has forced children out of school for over a year. The pandemic came not just with the threat to the health but it also brought with it some major changes in lifestyle for children. According to experts, social isolation, zero physical activities, disrupted routines have led to stress, disappointments, fear, grief, anxiety and depression among children. To learn about how to deal with the situation and how to help children cope with the impacts of COVID-19 and the lockdown, NDTV spoke to Dr Amit Sen, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Director and Co-Founder of Children First, a Delhi based child and adolescent mental health service.
NDTV: How can we create an emotional safe zone for children at home?
Dr Amit Sen: The second wave has been very different from the first. COVID was at a distance from us during the first wave. At that time, if we had followed all the regulations of masking, hand washing and social distancing, then we could assume that we were safe and at least most of us were at that time. However, the second wave has actually brought COVID right into our homes. It has broken through all barriers. Deaths and devastation have increased and children have witnessed it very closely and that makes a situation traumatic. This can deeply damage their emotional equilibrium with a lasting effect. So, we need to remember that it is not a passing phase and will not completely go as soon as COVID will go. It is very important to take stock of what is happening to our children, here and now, because what was something that we had to be careful about has now become something that made people fearful and paralysed by the possibilities of what the covid is doing. I think there must not be a single person who has not got affected by some kind of personal loss. So, anxiety and fear are the first things that we have to deal with. Children often react in a certain way- from becoming completely frozen from fear to getting into a situation of panic to complete despair.
There is an added factor of lockdown. Deprivation of things that were essential for their wellbeing and growth have got taken away due to covid restrictions.
NDTV: What are the symptoms that parents should look out for to understand that their children are going through some stress?
Dr Amit Sen: The first things that get disturbed is the natural rhythm. The sleeping pattern is off. A lot of time they cannot help it because of the disturbing thought they have, the kind of nightmares they are getting and so on and of course, a lot of peer group activities particularly among the teenagers are there at night. Moreover, the appetite goes, they are demanding junk food all the time and you begin to see the mood swings or they are having massive meltdowns, slamming doors, shouting, the oppositional behaviour that creeps in. The older ones begin to look at other avenues of some kind of relief, so, they might be using substances, or alcohol and the screen becomes a big getaway. Screen addiction then becomes a huge problem. Also, the younger ones often complain about physical symptoms like stomach ache or nausea or feeling lethargic. All these are indicators and when they add up together and you find your child is getting affected in all these different dimensions of mood, behaviour, natural rhythm, relationships breaking down, withdrawing from their friends- that is the time to begin to worry and see what is indeed happening in their inner world.
Many times children are unable to express themselves, maybe because they cannot identify some of the feelings or sometimes they feel that they might not be heard, or get ridiculed for what they are feeling at that time. These are some of the things that keep children from sharing what they are going through. It is vital that they share their feeling and so they have to have a safe space to share what they are going through and to be able to feel held by the elders in the family.
NDTV: How to control screen time among children?
Dr Amit Sen: Imposing rules and boundaries from the top are not going to work, especially with older children and they are going to rebel because already they are anguished. So, the best thing to do is to sit down with your children and see how they are using their screen time. Screens are essential these days because the education is on screen, all of the recreation is on screen, social connect is through the screen. So, you have to sit down and break it down and reflect with children on how many hours they are using the screen in a day and doing what. It also makes the young person aware of how much screen time they are doing. Help your young person reflect on the use of the screen and ask, ‘do you think that many hours of the screen are ok’.
When you make the decision for your young es was person to come off the screen, the question is what do they do instead? What can they do at their home which is interesting and has some value for them in terms of meaning, pleasure, emotions? Maybe there are old pictures that you can look at together with them, some old books, some old board games or tell stories about how it used to be. This will help children get a sense of identity which has been taken away due to the pandemic. See, a large part of growing up, for adolescents particularly, is about connecting with peer groups, belongingness, activities that they do.
NDTV: How to help children in dealing with grief?
Dr Amit Sen: There are two aspects of it. One, if the child has lost somebody really close like a parent or grandparents or maybe an uncle or an aunt who were very dear to them and that is a very deep personal loss. In these circumstances, when sometimes the aftermath of the death is so ugly as you cannot go to the funerals, you cannot come together as a family, there is no closure. So, it is important to talk about death, create a safe space for them to help them express their feelings when you announce the death of a person close to them. Remember, when you announce death to them, maintain composure and stability. But remember that it is important, to be honest, and gently, calmly and with respect. It is also important to talk about what we will do as a family to make sure that their life is not disrupted in a big way.
The second situation is when the loss is not too personal but yet close enough like a close friend who has lost a parent or they might have a teacher who has gone. It is important for the community to come together in these cases. It is important for the family to make sure that the conversation about covid and death and devastation is not happening all the time.
NDTV: In India, mental health is something we barely speak about. Because of COVID, the conversation around it has started, but for children, it is still not being spoken about that much. What do you think about child mental health awareness in the country?
Dr Amit Sen: Child mental health is neglected a lot. Child mental health is often looked after by schools, NGOs. The pandemic has taken away a lot from children like passing out from school, going from one class to another, celebrating birthdays with friends, all these make the lives of children and help them develop as human beings. Nobody gave a thought to this aspect but it is high time that we think about this. Because if do not, then this generation is probably going to be scared by the events like this and as they carry our future, they have to have the mental health, the bandwidth, the creativity and flexibility that you need and to feel safe to be able to take chances so that they can change our world. It desperately needs to be changed.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.