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Children's mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic

By Rosa Agutu | October 10th 2020 at 18:39:59 GMT +0300

COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of our lives but adults seem to find balance and coping mechanisms despite continuing uncertainties.  However, most parents assume as long as their children are housed, clothed and fed, then all is well.  But the reality is that they too are trying to cope with the coronavirus pandemic with reported cases of mental breakdowns slowly rising.

Now that there’s a lot of uncertainty around reopening schools and repeating classes, children are confused. Their lives and normal routine have been highly disrupted.

While addressing the nation on Monday, President Uhuru Kenyatta talked about the safety of children at schools.

“Learning institutions should only re-open when we have can guarantee the safety of our children.” He said

Jacqueline Njeri Gathu, a children’s psychiatrist, says kids suffer anxiety from lack of information from parents who assume they’re too young to understand what is going on besides also avoiding certain uncomfortable topics which “magnifies the situation” including massive school repetition, uncertainty in the world and the country and Gathu reckons the best thing is to “tell them what you know and your fears as well, but in an age-appropriate language.”

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Parents and children being at home together for long periods has also led to an explosion of collisions, complaints and tantrums. This strains parental restrain limits which Dr Gathu says are “on the low because you’re dealing with a lot of things. So, as the adult you will have to cut the child some slack because they’re also trying to express their emotions and you need to create a safe environment for them.”

Dr Gathu warns parents against posting complaints about their children’s gluttony on social media as “another mistake we make as parents is not knowing who to talk to and how to talk about certain things. Think about your child’s feelings…put yourself in their shoes…often the child wonders if they are not loved or if they are behaving abnormally.”

Dr.Gathu  says that she understands that sometimes parents need outlets to express their dissatisfaction, but she also advises them not to say certain things in the presence of their children or on social media. Let children know that you love them unconditionally and you view them as perfect beings as a way of building their self-esteem.

A 30-year-old mother of two Macrine Adhiambo from Rarieda constituency says that it was a bit easier for her 9-year-old son to understand that there was a pandemic compared to her 5-year-old son.

“I tried to explain to them in an age-appropriate language, at first they didn’t understand what the pandemic was so I had to tell them it’s worse than cholera because at least they had seen the effects of cholera. So I insisted on washing hands regularly and not playing with other kids.” She says

Adhiambo says that her 9-year-old was affected at the beginning and had a lot of questions.

“He kept asking me when schools will reopen when he will be able to play freely with his friends. I just told him what I knew at the time and I assured him that eventually, things will go back to normal.”

To keep them busy, Adhiambo says that she tried to create a routine for them, in the morning she would go with them to fetch water from the Lake, they would prepare breakfast and lunch together and sometimes go to her small farm together. Sometime she would go with them to the shopping center where there’s a TV so that they could watch the news and see the impact of the disease.

Things are however a bit different for 29-year-old mother of one Lydia Waweru who resides in Ngara Nairobi. While Adhiambo had to take her kids to the shopping center to watch TV, Lydia says that her 3-year-old daughter learnt about sneezing in her elbows and washing hands from cartoons and advertisements while at home.

“I had not explained it to my daughter, because she’s three and I thought she wouldn’t understand but I was shocked when allover a sudden she started washing hands regularly and before leaving the house she would tell us to wear a mask and sneeze in our elbows. When I asked where she learnt it, she told me from cartoons and TV adverts. Right now she thinks wearing a mask is like wearing shoes you can’t leave the house without. “Lydia says

What to do during the pandemic

For ages parents delegated duties to nannies and teachers due to busy schedules. Dr Gathu advises parents to take advantage and bond by creating a routine whether they are at home or before they leave for work. Kiss them goodbye, wish them a happy day tell them that you love and are proud of them. Keep checking on them during the day.

Parents can also get involved in their online classes by helping set the timetable, engage them in chores, provide an avenue for talking about their feelings. “If you don’t listen to them when they are still young, they will not tell you anything when they are older because they are used to being ignored,” says Dr Gathu.

Parents fear having children with mental ill-health

Dr Gathu explains depression might trigger mental health challenges and associated stigmas and most parents find safety in silence’, fearing what people might say. The more we avoid talking about anxiety, depression and mental ill-health in children the more we are worsening the situation.”

Dr Gathu says there’s a lot of misinformation about depression and most parents want therapists to fix the problem there and then before anyone finds out.

What to expect when you take your child to see a therapist

Children in need of psychiatric care are treated differently. For those aged between three and seven, their therapy room is more playful, with artwork crayons, even the furniture is colourful for “play therapy” explains Dr Gathu as “that’s he how children express themselves and how they communicate to us about their world.”

The play therapy has themes depending on the issues the child battling and ranges from bullying, special needs, or abuse and the play items are selected from the information she gets from parents. The first three sessions “I do undirected play, I let them choose the items and the way they interact with them will give me an idea of their life,” says Dr Gathu adding that invitation to play together enables her to pick cues on what they’re going through. “So it’s for me to interpret then invite the parents to give them feedback and from there we look for therapeutic measures to help the child.”

It’s a bit different for children above seven and most are taken to the adults’ therapy room where parents or guardians are present to talk about their concerns but the mistake they make is that most don’t inform the child they are going for therapy.

Once the concerns are expressed then the child is given a chance to respond after which the therapist takes over during the remaining five to 10 sessions in which “the parents/guardians will be invited back. They’ll be given feedback and it’s not always rosy but it’s the journey of healing.”

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