By Dr Hassan Mirza
The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented event that has changed the way we live across the globe. It has impacted all domains of life be it education, work or how we socialise. Economies are struggling and long-term implications are as yet unclear, leading to a state of uncertainty and anxiety. The whole situation seems unbelievable, and yet sometimes feels familiar like in apocalyptic movies.
With many cities under lockdown across the world, and Muscat being no exception, we find ourselves in an uncertain situation. The lockdown has affected the adults and children alike, and we’re finding ways to mitigate the psychological impact of this lockdown.
In the current situation, feeling of anger, sadness and anxiety is expected in children, and it is important for parents to validate these emotions in their children. Yet at the same time it is an opportunity to teach our children resilience, which means effectively adapting and managing stress, and being able to bounce back from adversity.
First of all, parents must learn to manage their own fears and anxieties, because children look to their parents for how to react to stress. Parents should provide age-appropriate explanations to children, be honest about it but keep it positive. For example, yes some do develop serious complications and die, but most people overcome the infection with natural immunity, and especially vast majority of children have only mild symptoms of the infection.
Make children understand that scientists are working hard to develop effective treatments and vaccination, healthcare professionals are working tirelessly to serve those in need, the government is doing an amazing job to curb the spread of coronavirus, and acknowledge the effort all children have put into this by being home-schooled to minimise the infection.
Companionship is essential for children’s normal psychological development and well-being, and during the lockdown and social distancing, they are unable to meet and play with their friends, making them feel angry, fed-up and isolated, which takes a toll on them and can make them prone to develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, acute stress disorder and sleep difficulties.
And children with existing mental health difficulties are going to face more difficult challenges, similarly, those with special educational needs and autism are also at higher risk, as they can become frustrated and ill-tempered due to disruption of their daily routines.
However, there are many things that we can focus on and help our children do as well, and these efforts with help mitigate the psychological impact of the current situation. For example, encouraging them to regularly wash their hands with soap and water, eat healthy food and maintain good sleep habits. Children should maintain daily routine, keep themselves busy, do school work, and stay connected with friends and family by phone and video calls. Children should be encouraged to exercise, and do something pleasurable every day. Parents should reiterate the importance of staying indoors to prevent the spread of the virus.
Nevertheless, it is also important to be aware of the red flag signs in children such as long-lasting sadness, extreme changes in mood, social withdrawal, excessive fear and anxiety, dramatic changes in sleep or appetite and self-harming behaviour in teenagers. Always remember that professional support is available, get help if your child needs it.
On the whole, people have faced many pandemics in the past, and just as they have always prevailed, we shall prevail again.
The writer is child & adolescent psychiatrist at Sultan Qaboos University Hospital. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org