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Managing Your Kid’s Mental Health During a Pandemic

15 May 2020

Parents are now having a tough time in this movement control order (MCO) period. As schools and childcare centres remain closed, millions of children are home bound, complicating life for working parents. While the situation is bleak parents do the best they can. With such an extended time together, family friction is inevitable as parents deal with their children’s over attachment, disruptive behaviours and disobedience. “While parents are under a lot of stress juggling between work and home at the same time, it is important for them to understand that their children, whether younger or older, too are affected by this lockdown,” says Evelyn Soong Yoke Fen, Clinical Psychologist at IMU Healthcare. By definition, children refer to a group of people aged below 18, which include toddler, young children and teens. Children of different age group express their feelings differently, some through internalising behaviour while some through externalising behaviour. Internalising behaviour are those that are expressed inwardly, for instance being moody, unhappy, and withdrawn; while externalising behaviour are expressed outwardly such as disobedience, disruptive behaviours or physical aggression. While most parents largely stumped by these behaviours, Evelyn explains that stress can often be the cause.

Stress triggers

Like adults, children too are adapting to a new daily routine in this unusual times.

Toddlers are now at a fast growing and learning stage hence they tend to need much more, if not constant, attention. Since removed from childcare or preschool, they no longer follow a structured daily schedule.
School going children
School going children are missing out on playtime with their peers, which deprive them of the necessary social interaction with others. Since learning in physical classes are now replaced with online learning, tutors and friends have become physically inaccessible whenever help is needed. Without the tutor’s personal attention, children may find learning difficult and potentially stressful. When they look up to adults for help, they might not get it on demand since some adults are also keeping up a work schedule, leaving the child feel ignored or neglected.

Adults emotions may also trigger stress in children. When parents are tensed, or feeling impatient, they may snap at or take it out on the others close to them, this includes children. In the unfortunate occasion where there’s domestic violence, children may not only suffer physical hurt but emotional too.

Restoring order in times of chaos

Although family conflicts are bound to happen and it is part of family life, Evelyn suggests a few ways for parents to cope with the changes during MCO. “To begin, parents should be mindful of their children’s age and their ability to understand,” says Evelyn. “However, regardless of their age, getting the children involved in the planning of the day-to-day routine is a good start. This will make children feel that they are part of the decision-making process and that their needs are heard and understood.” Parents are advised to set a timetable together with their children, to restore order amidst the chaos. As young children have very little understanding of the concept of time, plotting the timetable with them helps them understand that there’s time for learning, playing, activities, and so on. This will also create a boundary of time for the little ones. Working parents can then work in their virtual meetings when their children are having online lessons or taking a nap.

Toddlers between 3 and 6 years of age
Providing meals before attending to work matters are important. As toddlers are in the learning stage, parents can design activities that help them learn, for instance recognising colours, counting, learning shapes, or reading.
Children aged between 7 and 12
Parents can occupy their children’s free time with thematic activities such as a 30-day challenge. Some ideas to explore include creating puzzles or designing a snake and ladder board game, which the family can enjoy the end result together.
Teens aged 13 to 18
Teens need a sense of connection. Since their ability to understand is much better than the younger ones, parents can spend time to bond with them by discussing the child’s topic of interest. This allows them to feel understood while keeping them accompanied and not feel lonely.

Help children express themselves

As young children may not be able to verbalize their emotions clearly, Evelyn suggests parents to use visual aids, such as cards with different emotions . Start by asking the child on how they feel and allow them to point on cards that represent their feelings. When negative emotions are detected, parents have to be patient in addressing it with them. “It is not unusual for stressed up parents to not being able to address their children’s emotional needs. They may react by brushing it aside or jump into conclusion and to problem-solve. This would not help,” says Evelyn. “As adults, we don’t open up easily to others, same goes to children. Patience is key. Slowly probe them with gentle questions and they will open up when they feel safe.”

Managing own emotions as parents

The primary caretaker who is working would experience tremendous stress during this time. Evelyn suggests for parents to discuss their work schedule and timeline for the week with each other. They can then delegate tasks between childcare and domestic chores according to their deadline and availability. It is important to facilitate open discussions and to support one another during such times.

For parents with younger children who demand more attention, parents should also share the responsibility in teaching, educating, and playing equally. This is so that children would think that both parents care for them and not feel neglected by either one.

Fixing the aftermath

In the heat of the moment, parents may say things that they don’t mean. In an argument involving a parent and a child, it rests on the adult to take the lead in resolving the conflict.

Effectively Resolving a Conflict
It is important to first identify the problem. The goal is eventually to have closure in the end. Parents can begin by being aware of their actions. Try to recall the sequence of events, and how the event led to the frustration or outburst.
Approach the child, be honest in explaining what lead to the anger or outburst, and then apologise
End the conversation by asking how the child feel and agree that you will be more cautious in the future.

Over time, parents may even notice their child adopting the same method in resolving future conflicts. Children learn by observing their parents’ actions, and many parents strive to be their children’s role model. Evelyn suggests for families to adopt and initiate open communication and show appreciation frequently. Even though the child may not be open to the idea at first but keep trying. This will strengthen the family bond in the long run. Evelyn concludes that there are many ways to care for the young; one can never be a perfect parent, but a good enough parent is sufficient. “Whether the MCO continues or be lifted, these principles and methods can come in handy during childcare, allowing children to grow up healthy physically and emotionally,” says Evelyn in closing. Note: You can also listen to a full conversation on this topic (in Mandarin)  at Possible Issues Faced by Children During MCO.

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