Published May 24, 2020

"Zoo closed. Lion sick” That’s what the zookeeper on the other end of the line kept repeating. He roars for extra effect and my three-year-old seems convinced. His face falls, chin touches his chest and I can see his eyes are beginning to tear up. But in his limited 300 word vocabulary, he tells the zookeeper to “Call vet. Lion medicine. Lion feel better.” 

The phone call was the last trick up our sleeve to help him understand that the zoo is closed — and might be for a while now. 

This has been our seventh call this month.

After he hangs up, I quickly text my brother a thank you message for saving us from another meltdown.

If you are related to, happen to be in possession of or work with one or more child, then you can understand their need to ask questions. The “why?” being a hands-down favourite of their curious minds. Minds that work hard to understand and make sense of the world around them. A task that has become quite challenging, given the recent pandemic. 

“When can I go back to school?”

That’s the first question Madiha’s five-year-old daughter, Noor begins her day with. There are many ‘whys’ that follow. Madiha and her family have been in lockdown since mid-March and, despite her attempts at a structured routine with multiple activities to keep Noor occupied, the little girl seems to be visibly annoyed at the curveball life has thrown her way. She is starting to react by doing what any five-year-old in her sparkly Elsa shoes would do: have a meltdown.

Children are dealing with a lot of change, stress, and isolation as a result of the pandemic. But parents can help them by being empathetic

“She starts crying and screaming that she just wants the ‘germs’ to go away. She’ll video-call her grandmother in Pakistan, and ask her if she can come over because the germs do not exist in Pakistan,” Madiha explains.

Hoping it would ease her feelings, she and her husband took their daughter for a drive, hoping it would make her feel better, but noticed Noor intentionally left her beloved doll at home, saying she didn’t want the ‘germs’ to make it sick.

Amjad faced a somewhat similar reaction when he took his six-year-old son, Zaid, out for a drive. It also meant as a breather from being cooped up in a two-bedroom apartment for weeks and Amjad hoped it might offer the little guy some relief. Instead, his child saw empty streets, parks and closed stores, and burst into tears, insisting they return home at once.

While symptoms of the novel coronavirus may be milder in children, the fear, uncertainty and stress surrounding the disease, coupled with the rigid confinement because of social distancing, are beginning to impact their development, mental and emotional health.

Over 2.6 billion worldwide are in some kind of lockdown, a scenario that has been defined by Dr Elke Van Hoof on the World Economic Forum website as “arguably the largest psychological experiment ever”, that will result in “a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020.”

Quarantined individuals are said to experience low moods, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Unicef conducted a study to understand the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental and psycho-social wellbeing. Guidelines, strategies and online resources, including a children’s book My Hero Is You, were devised to help families and children better understand and cope with the pandemic.

To strive, a healthy child needs to feel protected and safe, have his basic needs met, and have connections with his community that are stable and nurturing. Unfortunately, the pandemic has managed to impact all three. Children have been ripped away from their primary source of structure and socialisation, the comfort of their friends.

While experts believe it is too early to predict the long-term effects of a prolonged period of social distancing on children and its impact on early childhood development, parents and caregivers such as Amjad and Madiha are beginning to notice mood swings and behavioral changes: outbursts, tantrums, and regressions.

According to the April 18 edition of the Guardian, in Spain — one of the countries with the strictest lockdown measures — pediatricians and other experts are pushing for more relaxed measures. This was after a rise in nervousness, insomnia, chest and stomach pains — symptoms of anxiety in minors — were noticed.

Psychologists at NYT Langone’s Child Study Center tell parents not to worry. They believe that regression or ‘returning to earlier stages of development’ is a defence mechanism that is triggered during times of stress and causes children to become dependent, clingy, sensitive, irritable and demanding.

Other symptoms may include aggressiveness and changes in eating and sleeping habits.

While some parents have noticed their children struggling with the lockdown and wilting under its pressure, many families found that the isolation period gave them an opportunity to grow and rebuild relationships, by allowing them to slow down, reflect and bond with each other. 

But a child’s response to the lockdown may be influenced by several factors, ranging from age, personality type, economic stability, family structure, the number of siblings, the intensity of confinement and even their routines.

 Younger children, children belonging to low-income households, and having less resources, may feel more anxious or stressed as compared to their counterparts. A stressed parent facing financial security, or struggling with chores, homeschooling or work might project their own fear and frustration on the child, aggravating stress levels and feelings of confusion and uncertainty.

For children with parents fighting on the frontlines, the sudden distancing from a parent might add to their trauma and aggravate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

An only child living in a nuclear set-up in an apartment, suddenly deprived of his social contacts, may find it harder to cope than a child with siblings or a child living in a joint family and used to staying at home.

Even two children from the same family might react or express their big pandemic emotions differently.

Raima, a mother of two under-10s, noticed that while her eldest child became sensitive, irritable and clingy, the younger one become more aggressive and began to act out for attention. “I understand they’re both scared and trying to make sense of the situation in their own ways,” she says. “I’m trying my best to help them understand and make them feel safe.”

When Sidrat’s three-year-old daughter began to have epic tantrums, she wondered how she could help her daughter in her journey through quarantine, and help her deal with her emotions. From going to school, to daycare and then home, her daughter Pepper suddenly found herself confined at home. The change had been drastic and abrupt.

“Pepper’s epic meltdowns were a natural reaction to the upheaval in her world order as well as all the physical energy that was now pent up inside her,” Sidrat explains. “She was used to her routine and couldn’t understand why she couldn’t be at the daycare, or school or her grandma’s. And while I practice peaceful parenting, during the first month, I found ourselves out of our depth.”

Sidrat began by being empathetic to herself, this was tough and new for her too. And then she started again. She allowed Pepper to begin her day with a lot of movement to burn that energy and ensured one-on-one time early in the morning. “It filled her cup for connection. We have a new routine now so some order is restored in her world.”

And this is exactly what psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in The Atlantic, advises parents. Lori asks them to take care of their own emotional health first, before tackling a child because anxiety is contagious. “How parents respond emotionally to a challenge, whether it’s a family crisis or a global one, greatly influences how their kids will do.”

Aaron Milstone, a pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center agrees. “Children will look to you when deciding how to feel about Covid-19. If you feel calm and prepared, they are likely to feel similarly.”

So what else can parents and caregivers do to help their kids? 

Well, for starters, validation is crucial when talking to children. Sweeping the problem aside, and pretending it doesn’t exist, or is a valid cause for concern, can aggravate the situation.

Experts and counsellors encourage open communication, listening to your child’s feelings and validating their emotions. They advise parents to never force their child to talk or negate their emotions once they open up. Parents should provide children with accurate information, based on their age and understanding. They also advise answering any questions that the child may have but avoiding going into great detail if the child is not curious.

Having a routine, journaling, sticking to a healthy amount of screen time, physical exercise and, if possible, scheduled outside-time for fresh air and movement, also help reinforce a sense of normalcy.

Experts also encourage using positive enforcement and avoiding punishment during these high stress times. Being sympathetic, nurturing, flexible and forgiving will not only help a child feel safe, but will also help him or her develop mechanisms to cope with stress in the future.  

To ensure children don’t feel lonely and isolated, parents should encourage alternate forms of socialising — from virtual play-dates, to playing games online with each other, to staying connected in a safe and healthy way.

Multiple counselling services, communities and resources are now available online and have been designed to help children deal with anxiety and stress.

In a new world, where the coronavirus is part of a three-year-old child’s limited vocabulary, there is no one ‘best’ way to help our children understand and deal with their feelings of fear and anxiety. But it is our duty, as adults, to help them learn to cope with them in a healthy manner.

In our case, it’s the roar of a lion from the other end of the line.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 24th, 2020



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