Mending tender minds

Children who lost their parents are highly vulnerable to mental health problems

Dr K. John Vijay Sagar Dr K. John Vijay Sagar

CHILDREN ARE A vulnerable group of individuals. Though the Covid-19 infection rate in children is less when compared with adults, the adverse impact of the pandemic on their mental health is significant.

The pandemic has adversely impacted the development of socio-emotional and language skills in preschoolers (children below six). Most children of this age group are confined to their homes as there is no access to outdoor play spaces, playschools or anganwadis. They may express intense anxiety and reach out to parents with questions about Covid-related regulations, such as wearing a mask and staying indoors. It is normal to express such anxiety. Some children may show frequent temper tantrums, too. Parents have to communicate with children in simple language about the Covid infection and Covid-related regulations.

The pandemic has adversely impacted children with special needs, too. Most of the special schools, therapy centres and rehabilitation centres have been closed, and it has become stressful for parents to provide developmental and behavioural training inputs for special children at home.

Domestic violence, and incidents of physical, emotional and sexual abuse cases involving children have also increased during the pandemic.

Closure of schools, less physical activity, absence of peer interactions, too much screen time and confinement to homes are all factors affecting the mental health of children. Excessive use of gadgets predisposes them to cyberbullies, internet addiction and online sexual exploitation. Many children are experiencing anger, sadness and boredom. Some of them may exhibit aggression, self-harming behaviour and withdrawal syndromes. There is also an increased risk of psychiatric disorders, especially depression and anxiety disorders. Those children who have experienced the loss of a family member, especially parents, or are from the lower socio-economic strata, children of frontline workers and those who live in childcare institutions are highly vulnerable to mental health problems. Domestic violence, and incidents of physical, emotional and sexual abuse cases involving children have also increased during the pandemic.

Parents have to ensure their children's mental health by listening to them, acknowledging their difficulties, clarifying their doubts, reassuring them and providing emotional support. They should engage in open, non-judgmental communication with their children. Parents have to negotiate with them to ensure limited use of gadgets and should include non-digital activities in their daily routine.

Parenting is not easy during this pandemic; parents should not hesitate in taking support from other family members and seeking timely guidance from trained counsellors and mental health professionals. Urgent professional help has to be sought for the children if their behavioural or emotional changes last for more than two weeks, or if the changes are severe. Professional help is necessary if the child experiences a significant loss of sleep or appetite, exhibits physical aggression, or shows self-harming tendencies.

Dr Vijay Sagar is professor and head, department of child and adolescent psychiatry, NIMHANS