The Covid-19 pandemic, which has been raging in India for more than a year now, has led to drastic changes in the day-to-day lives of people, due to restrictions such as curfews, quarantine, lockdown, self-isolation, and closure of schools, businesses and universities. Parenting in the time of such a pandemic can be specifically taxing as parents now find themselves in a difficult situation with young, energetic and active children locked down within the house. School closures, working remotely from home, physical distancing is a lot to navigate for anyone, and more so for parents, who are struggling with uncertainties about the future, balancing work and child care.
Research suggests that there is an increase in punitive strategies, yelling, and allowing excessive screen time after the pandemic. These behaviours can have a profound impact on children. It is not just one child or one family we are talking about. India has the highest number of children and adolescents in the world. There are more than 434 million children and adolescents in India. Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults. We are expected to have a 250 million working population by 2030. Such a working young population can be an asset for the country, contributing to the nation’s growth and development, i.e., if they are physically and mentally fit, else they can become a burden on the family, community and on national resources.
The prevalence of child psychiatric disorders in India has been estimated to be nearly 7% in the community (Malhotra and Patra, 2014). Further, India has one of the highest youth suicide rates globally, and suicide is among the leading causes of death in Indian youth. At any given point of time, nearly 50 million Indian children suffer from mental disorders, and this number will increase if the adolescent population is considered as well. These numbers are from before the pandemic. Now, due to stress caused by the fear of contracting the disease, uncertainties about the future, economic crisis, exposure to parental abuse and neglect, violence within the family, reduced physical activities and reduced intellectual stimulation; the mental health of developing children at a higher risk.
According to a survey carried out by the Indian Psychiatry Society, there was a 20% rise in the number of cases of mental illness at the end of March 2020. Since then, things have become much worse. Therefore, it is time we talk about child mental health in the context of the pandemic, and preventive strategies that can be adopted. This is where parents play an important role, as they are not only responsible for a child’s physical wellbeing and academic achievement, but also in providing a safe environment for their children. Nurturing a child’s mental health can go a long way in preventing mental health issues, especially because childhood experiences have a long-lasting effect and can affect adult adjustment as well.
Here are some of the things parents may use while parenting their children during the current pandemic time:
Establish routine and structure: Working from home, and children attending online classes could have disturbed regular routines at home. Make sure you, and your family wake at a specific time, perform routine rituals such as bathing, dressing, eating and sleeping on time. Ensure your child goes to sleep and wakes up at the same time each day. Make sure all screens are turned off at least one hour before bedtime as the blue light from these devices can interfere with your child’s sleep-wake cycle. Make a schedule for you and your children that has time for structured activities as well as free time for exercise, yoga and other physical activities and games.
Spend warm quality time: Spend some time every day with your child, bonding with them. Ask child questions about their thoughts, feelings, plans, etc, and encourage them to share, while making them feel safe about it. Be non-judgmental, and be open. Even if they criticize you or blame you during this talk, don’t be offended or be defensive. Instead, be willing to discuss it. You can explain your point of view when they are finished, or if you are indeed on the wrong, accept it gracefully, apologise, and tell them that you are willing to work on it. Offer extra physical affection in the form of hugs and kisses at night if your child needs it. Other things you can do during the quality time are reading/telling them a story, colouring/crafting together, etc.
Engage children proactively: Do chores together. Some children like to do household chores, but they may find it unpleasant when parents expect perfection and criticize if the child does not do the job well. Instead, ask them to help with age-appropriate little chores, and allow them to do it in their own way. They may not do it as well as you do, or they may leave it half done, but what’s important is that your child did participate in a household chore. Begin there, and slowly work on increasing their time spent on chores. You could use reinforcement, such as 10 rupees for folding clothes, etc. This serves many things: children are occupied in something other than TV or mobile, they are learning skills in household chores, and it also lessens the burden on you. Cooking, gardening, taking out the trash, doing the dishes or helping with laundry are all household chores you can ask your child for help with. Be mindful not to overburden them with household tasks.
Help them connect with others: Because of social distancing and lockdown restrictions, children may not be able to go out and play with other children like before. They are missing out on the crucial balance between studies and play and may develop emotional problems due to not being able to physically meet with friends and other peers. Allow children to connect with others through phones, or create a google meet or zoom space where they all can come together and talk.
Monitor screen time: Long screen hours can cause technology addiction. While you do not have to constantly check on what they are doing, you can use a parental lock to avoid misuse of the phone given to them for online classes. Additionally, plan activities the children can do when they are bored. Such as playing carrom board, snake and ladder, etc., which not only engage them but also help bond with family. If you are busy, let them take up some creative hobbies, upcycling or science projects which can take a chunk of time to complete.
Manage bad behaviours: The best way to shape behaviour is to appreciate good behaviours and ignore the child when they perform bad behaviour. Praise your child whenever they perform a positive behaviour and reward good behaviours, such as doing well on an assignment, making their bed, taking out the trash, or getting along with their siblings. Usually, you might not reward this kind of behaviour, but during this pandemic time, nothing positive should go unappreciated. It will make them want to do it again. If your child is misbehaving, redirect them to another activity, such as playing outside or reading a book. Distract them at the first instance of bad behaviour. If your child is getting restless or building up a tantrum, distract them with an interesting task or a fun game, and you can curb bad behaviour before it starts. Sometimes, it may be best to do nothing, because ignoring the child can be a very effective tool when trying to get your child to stop doing something. When a young child is looking for attention, not giving it to them can make them realize that it is not working.
Be mindful of abuse: Never yell, scream at or spank your child. Losing your temper in this way will only damage your relationship and impact your child’s sense of safety and security. If you are angry, move out of the room, calm down and come back to discuss it. Allow the child to express himself/herself. Keep discussions short and up to the point. Avoid using words such as, “you always”, “you never”, etc. Instead, use words to express your feelings as in, “I feel this when you do this”. Let the focus be on the behaviour not on the child. The message you should convey is, “I am only upset about that behaviour, but not at you.” If there are marital discord, abuse from the spouse or other members of the family, seek help right away.
Destress, relax and enjoy yourself: Parenting can be a very tough job. It is normal to feel stressed, frustrated and even have regrets about having children. Recognize that what you are feeling is normal and many parents out there are going through the same. You can do a better job when you are relaxed. Keep some time for yourself, perhaps after the child has gone to sleep, when you can spend time by yourself, reading a favourite book, or watching a favourite show on TV, or any activity that brings you joy. Take help from your spouse and other family members in whatever way possible. Take care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well, practise yoga and meditation, all of which will keep you physically and mentally fit. However, if you feel that you are overwhelmed, reach out to seek help.
A lot of organisations in India are offering tele-counselling facilities. Some of them are free. Union government of India has launched a toll-free 24×7 helpline called KIRAN (1800-599-0019) for providing psychological support in Hindi, Kannada, Assamese, Tamil, Marathi, Odia, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu and English. Indian Association of Clinical Psychologists (IACP) has a psychosocial support and suicide prevention helpline number: 08047192224, where professional clinical psychologists offer their services between 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM. Make use of these services, and if you need more help, reach out to the nearest child psychologist or mental health professional. Most hospitals and professionals are working despite the pandemic, and are willing to help you through this crisis.