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Prioritise family mental health as Covid-19 wreaks havoc

By People Reporter
Thursday, March 26th, 2020
Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Kenya Meles Alem (left), KAA chief executive Alex Gitari (centre) and Kenya’s Director of Health Patrick Amoth receive a donation from Chinese billionaire and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma at JKIA in Nairobi. Photo/PD/Kenna CLAUDE

Bernice Nderitu

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) move to declare Covid-19 a pandemic has resulted in sudden changes in the way we live, behave, and think.

It has threatened our physical health, our livelihoods, our socialisation, and occupation and academic functioning. 

For adults, it means no work or working from home or still going to work albeit with challenges.

To manage the situation, we have been advised to take precautions such as maintaining physical distance and practising personal hygiene. This also need to be understood from the lens of children. 

Physical distancing means children either cannot play, or their play is limited.

Further, the school setting as a protective and social mechanism for children has been suddenly disrupted.

Being on compulsory holiday is much different from regular holiday. Children might wonder: “What kind of holiday is this where my parents are at home with me?”

Children are now without the structure, stimulation, predictability, and play that is critical for growth and development and mental health.

Their routine is interrupted and world turned upside down. Learning from home is challenging because of the various distractions.  

While adults have the cognitive resources to access and understand information on the coronavirus, children are often left confused by the information, unless it is explained to them in simple language.

Play, peer socialisation, and routine are key resources that children use to reduce their distress in times of crisis.

What Covid-19 means for children is that the world as they know it has drastically changed, their coping skills have been greatly restricted, and the adults around them are anxious. 

The pandemic is an immediate and perceived threat to life as we know it. Three common reactions to sudden and stressful situations are under-response, over-response, or freeze-response.

An under-response may be characterised by apathy, boredom, or little attention to the situation.

An over-response may be intentionally putting oneself in danger, having anger outbursts, or being in a state of panic and constant anxiety.

A freeze-response is one where a person feels like what is happening around them is not real. 

Becoming aware of stress responses and identifying which one(s) you may be experiencing is important for your own mental health and wellbeing and that of your family.

Children often look to parents on how to feel and behave. Covid-19 is an imminent threat to your family’s mental wellbeing.

However, there is hope in being proactive and practising mental hygiene. 

Give correct information in a calm, creative, and child-friendly way. Explain the symptoms of Covid-19 and what might happen if someone gets infected.

  Achieve balance through a consistent schedule of activities. Routine helps both children and adults have a sense of control over their lives.

Create a flexible timetable of daily activities, including regular meals, and exercise. 

 Children in distress may present with recurrent nightmares and sleep difficulties, changes in eating habits or being withdrawn.

 While it is important to keep abreast of the news, focussing on sad news on coronavirus for hours on end are counter-productive for both yourself and your children. Monitor what your children are watching. 

The pandemic causes anxiety and uncertainty, but also provides an opportunity to spend more time with family and practise healthy habits. —The writer is a mental health and child development expert

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