Happiness in COVID Times

Happiness in COVID Times

Family at the Forefront of Children’s Wellbeing and Happiness in COVID Times

Aneesh Kurian,Deepshikha Singh,Vrinda Datta

whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value. – Hermann Karl Hesse

Coronavirus pandemic has inflicted every aspect of human life. Since the nationwide lockdown was declared in India, people started their journey of physical isolation. Looking at the positive side of the pandemic, this period of sudden proximity to our homes has allowed us to be conscious of ourselves, our loved ones, and the entire immediate environment, which we found difficult doing on normal days. Apart from domestic chores and professional work from home, this period has provided us some time to connect with our people and surroundings.

However, families across the globe are coping with the evolving changes in daily life caused by the pandemic. Like most countries, India declared its schools and places of public gatherings closed for an indefinite period. Families are navigating to help children adjust and adapt to the new situation in a child-friendly manner. Parents or other caregivers are trying to keep children engaged, feel safe, and keep up with schoolwork as best as possible and, at the same time, they continue to perform their professional and personal commitments. Certainly, it is not easy always and it requires lot of planning and management. But, instead of looking at this situation as uncertain series of problems, families can view it as a great opportunity to spend quality time with children and other members.

The first eight years of childhood, known as the early years, are globally acknowledged to be the most critical period for children’s lifelong growth and development. The human brain matures faster and is most malleable than ever in the first five years of life. Deprivation of nutrition, health, responsive care, and early learning stimulation during the early years can cause severe lifelong impacts. Worldwide, the negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic can profoundly affect young children’s development. These negative impacts could be related to rise in poverty levels, food insecurity, disrupted healthcare and other personal factors such as demise of caregivers and psychological stress.

In India, when 68-days long lockdown has been lifted, there was a government’s advisory for children below ten years of age to stay home. Children are usually expressing their wish to go out, but parents are apprehensive about any potential contact with the monstrosity of the virus. Unfortunately, children are deprived of outdoor play with their friends and peers for an indefinite period. Many children get cranky and confused on every failed attempt to visit their favourite outdoor spaces. It is going on, and there is no answer to when they can finally make to visit outdoor. This is something unusual for children who, on other days, could enjoy play sessions with friends in parks or playgrounds. Other routine outdoor activities such as free play on streets, fitness classes, outdoor classrooms, visiting friends or relatives, or having outings with family, are disrupted, among other things. Even structured play and hobby classes- music, dance, swimming, martial art, phonics, and so on, are all shut down. Children in the older age group are somewhat aware of the disrupted routine. They know that ‘stay home’ is a new reality because of the deadly outbreak. However, the younger children are unable to comprehend the situation and losing their familiarization with the outdoor. This is true especially in the case of toddlers who are disconnected with the outside world which could be otherwise a novel  experience for them if the situation would be normal. Infants and toddlers are unaware that a vast outdoor world exists waiting for these young ones to gain experiential learning.

COVID-19 has contained all outdoor play options for children. As children are confined to home, digital technology has a good chance to reveal its dark side. Most middle and upper-class families are tied up on their Smartphones, Computers, or Televisions, at least, if not other advanced digital technology. When adults keep absorbed into the digital world, children turn into their counterparts with increased screen time, often lacking any mindful use. Moreover, parents are increasingly using Television and Smartphones to keep children busy to compensate for the loss of outdoor play. More recently, OLX India survey revealed that about 84 percent parents are concerned about children’s increased screen time amid lockdown and about 57 percent have not taken any tangible online safety measures to protect children from security threats. With increased screen time, children would lose opportunities for physical movements, social interactions, exploration, construction, creativity, and experience of full range of human emotions.

Children’s routine life is upside down, and most of them are struggling to make sense out of it. We do not know when the situation would become fit for them to return to outdoor play without the slightest apprehension of the deadly virus. It is vague and no one exactly knows the answer because the virus is novel, and so is the situation.

Here, the role of families and parents becomes vital as home is now the only little world for children. Families are at the forefront of this new challenge to keep children happy and engaged in these tough times.

Parents’ engagement matters the most!

Family environment and parenting greatly influence children’s development, wellbeing, and learning.  Any humanitarian crisis poses responsibilities to nurture and protect children, continue their learning, cultivate gratitude, and support their resilience while building a safe community. During COVID times, we all work through adjusting daily schedules, balancing work and other activities, getting creative about how we spend time, processing new information from authorities, and connecting and supporting friends and family in new ways. Here is an excellent opportunity for adults to model for children’s exploration, problem-solving, flexibility, creativity, and compassion. Who can understand and encourage children better than the parents themselves?  Parents’ engagement matters the most!

When parental interactions with young children are supportive, and relationships are stable characterized by adequate responsiveness, stimulation, and play opportunities, it can positively shape the emotional and psychological development of children. As childcare and early education facilities are closed, and physical connection with acquaintances are disrupted, children remain deprived of social and cognitive stimulation, which they used to derive from their interaction with the outer world. Therefore, the current situation demands that parents develop deep connection and engagement with their children more than ever.

Parents’ engagement would matter the most as they are the primary support system for their kids and are the most influential and significant people in children’s life. Parents know the best interest of their children and are capable of providing the best environment to them. However, the challenges put up by the current pandemic have led to find new ways for engaging children at home. Here, we suggest some techniques through which families and parents can mitigate the effects of home confinement on children through engaging with them in creative ways.

Parental wellbeing leads to child wellbeing

When parents’ address their own needs and concerns, children are more likely to receive sensitive response and care from them. Ensuring parental wellbeing is an effective strategy for promoting children’s wellbeing. Parents’ moods, behaviours, verbal and non-verbal communications determine how children feel and act. Thus, parents should prioritize their time and energy for the most meaningful and joyful activities for themselves and their family. Parents must eat right and sleep well. They should deliberately take adequate breaks from work and caregiving responsibilities at least for short durations for rest, exercise, meditation, reading, etc.). In case of stress and depression, parents must reach out to friends, family members, or professionals, wherever necessary, for any material or psychological support. During this difficult time, self-care is indispensable for physical and mental wellbeing. It would not amount to a selfish act instead it would enable parents to be mentally and emotionally available for their children with a stable, calm, and soothing composure. Parents’ own wellbeing would help them understand their children better and help them feel reassured, relaxed, and focused.

Mental health of children

Like adults, children are also experiencing the psychological impacts of the pandemic. However, they are not conscious of what exactly is happening. But, they are definitely experiencing a serious change. Most children, especially the youngest ones, are unaware of the intensity of their emotions and feelings and, thus, unable to express it through words. During this time, parents need to empathize with children more than ever and accept all emotions as valid. Irrational fear can breed into children’s mind as they cannot make sense of the information and discussions about the pandemic. Children may have fears emerging out of the kind of discussions going on at home, news coverage on media, and the bitter realities of seeing their acquaintances being sick or deceased. These unprocessed fears may expose children to psychological distress, anxiety or even depression which they may express in different ways. Some may become withdrawn, while others may feel extremely nervous and express anger and frustration. Parents need to be patient with children and understand their emotions. Avoid discussing negative news about the COVID-19 but share the right information from valid sources in an honest way, using age-appropriate language. Help children find positive ways to express their feelings such as fear and sadness and encourage them to engage in creative/collaborative activities, like playing or drawing, telling or enacting stories, singing, and playing games. Praising children for their strengths, supporting them, and reassuring them that you are prepared to keep them safe can help ensure positive mental health for children during the pandemic.

Establish and maintain a daily routine for children

Keeping a regular schedule provides a sense of self-control, predictability, calmness, and wellbeing for children. A productive routine lets children know what to expect from a given day. If children need to do their school/pre-school work, a routine can help them get through lessons and keep up with learning at home. Likewise, parents can make time for different kinds of play with their children – for example, quiet play, craft, reading, colouring, and so on. This can help children get the right balance of activities throughout the day at home.

Keep children active

Children have a great source of energy, and parents should facilitate them to direct their energy in positive manner.  Keeping children active and fit can help them become physically and mentally healthy. The World Health Organization recommends children and adolescents to be active for a minimum of 60 minutes a day that contributes to their physical health and provides brain benefits like increased ability to focus on learning, better sleep patterns, and improvement in the ability to balance emotions and stress. Even if the home space is confined, there are various ways to keep children active and having fun together. Some of the potential strategies are yoga, stretching exercises, freeze dance, musical chair, three-leg race, water balloon pass, and frog jump. You may also unleash your memories of childhood games through reliving those beautiful moments with your children.

Limit screen time

Children and teens are now spending a lot more time online which present many health risks and dangers. Parents should set the time limit for watching television, using internet, and social media. Continuously watching updates on COVID-19 and the information designed for adults may increase the fear and anxiety among children. Similarly, continuous engagement with media is not advisable for children. While providing access to media platforms (social media), parents should mediate to ensure its appropriate and mindful use. Parents should engage children in games or other exciting activities instead of spending great deal of time on digital media. Besides, parents can also plan some regular one-on-one time with each of their children.

Provide opportunities for play and play-based learning

Children need to play more than ever to activate their innate capacity for adaptations and, thus, to beat the psychological impacts of the pandemic. We, adults, are aware of our feelings or experiences, but children usually are not aware of their feelings or experiences. The natural medium of communication for adults is ‘verbalization’; the natural medium of communication for children is ‘play.’ There are so many different types of play that can be both fun and educational for children. The play based on concepts like language, numbers, objects, drama, and music can provide children opportunities to explore and express themselves in a safe and fun way. For example, children love stories. You can tell a story from your childhood and ask the child to tell you a story. Similarly, parents and children can develop a new story together where a person can add a new sentence to the story or enact a favourite story. You can be engaged with your child in a pretend play. You can be a customer, for instance, and your kid is a pizza delivery person. Similar pretend play schema can be developed by children based on their interests. Children would love when parents are playmates in their planned pretend play. During this time of heightened stress, play and creativity must be prioritized over formal learning methods. Play is therapeutic for all.

Practice “serve and return” with children

Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture and facilitate responsive and attentive interaction between children and parents. Even before they learn to talk, infants and toddlers reach out for attention—babbling, cooing, gesturing, or making faces. When young children “serve up” a chance to engage with them, it is important to “return” with attention. Children try to engage with their parents in diverse ways. As a parent or caregiver, one should understand the child’s initiation and respond appropriately.

Stay connected

Staying connected with the extended family and friends is an integral part of maintaining the wellbeing and staying positive during physical distancing for both parents and children. Parents may try to support their children to get in touch with their social groups in an innovative and creative way. For instance, parents can support the child in handling video calls, phone calls, chats, emails, etc. to get in touch and play with their peers and relatives. Parents may also encourage children to stay connected with people in the bigger world. For example, they can express thanks through creating posters or greeting cards for doctors, frontline health workers, sanitization workers, essential supply delivery person, security guards, teachers, and all other people who are actively taking up their responsibilities at this difficult time for the wellbeing of others.

Be a Role-model

When parents model peaceful and loving relationships, children feel secured and loved. Positive language, active listening, and empathy help maintain a calm and happy family environment during these stressful moments. How parents talk and behave in front of others is a significant influence on how children observe and learn behaviours. Hence, parents need to cultivate kindness and use positive language while communicating with family members, children and other people. It is an enormous opportunity for parents to teach children about the importance of being kind to others and share concerns and responsibilities.

Let the child ‘support’ You!

In the words of Vince Gowmon, a famous therapeutic counsellor and play advocate, ‘The best education does not happen at a desk, but rather engaged in everyday living – hands-on, exploring, in an active relationship with life.’ Parents must encourage their young children to take part in simple household chores. The responsibilities for household chores, childcare, and other tasks can be divided equally among family members depending upon the age. Elder sibling can guide younger one to learn and carry out simple responsibilities. For instance, arranging books and toys, putting laundry in designated basket, matching socks, and fetching things from other room are some of the tasks a young child may enjoy doing. More interestingly, children can also give their little contributions when parents cook or care for pets and plants. These activities will connect children with nature and help them express daily gratitude. When children support us, we must value and appreciate their efforts. It will develop child’s confidence, sense of order, and independence.

It doesn’t matter how many play activities children do on daily basis, what really matter is parents’ engagement with the child in activities, the quality of those activities, and the derived fun and stress-free moments. However, some parents never left their children unsupervised or constantly nag because of the excessive overprotection or fear that children would damage the objects. It may result in control and limit children’s exploration. Children must be taught to remain safe and to handle the household objects with care while they play. They must be ensured autonomy to decide their own pace and schema for play. Parents’ role is to mediate and facilitate and not to interfere, control, or curtail children’s play options. The essence of child-centric activities, especially ‘play,’ can be promised only when it remains outside the adult control. While playing, parents must ensure that the play is initiated by the child and is developmentally appropriate. Your child’s wellbeing and happiness during the COVID-19 times largely depends on your own wellbeing and engagement.

Aneesh Kurian is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University Delhi aneesh@aud.ac.in

Deepshikha Singh is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University Delhi deepshikha@aud.ac.in

Vrinda Datta is Professor and Director at the Centre for Early Childhood Education and Development, Ambedkar University Delhi. vrinda@aud.ac.in