Locking down with reading and stories helps if you're feeling sad and anxious

14 April 2020 - 13:13 By Malini Mohana
Malini Mohana says maintaining an engaging and interactive relationship with children in the home is crucial to help them cope in difficult times. Children, like adults, seek to make sense of their world using stories.
Malini Mohana says maintaining an engaging and interactive relationship with children in the home is crucial to help them cope in difficult times. Children, like adults, seek to make sense of their world using stories.
Image: Supplied

Nal'ibali column No 11: Term 2 (2020)

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many South African parents and caregivers are feeling worried and confused. The nationally imposed lockdown means individuals are required to stay at home for their own and others’ safety.

For both children and adults, it is normal to experience a range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, sadness and even anger.

The lack of normal daily routines can be disorienting and frustrating for family members. And without the safety net of school and work, families are required to spend an unusually large amount of time with each other.

During times of stress and anxiety, babies and children are directly influenced by their parents’ responses. Children are as sensitive as adults to the changes and pick up on their parents' or caregivers' emotions, often subconsciously internalising emotional states and reactions of adults.

During this time, adults and children form their own narratives to better understand crises. This becomes harder when they feel disconnected from the community and their surroundings.

Maintaining an engaging and interactive relationship with children in the home is crucial to help them cope throughout this difficult time. Children, like adults, seek to make sense of their world using stories.

All humans are innately storytellers. From “how was your day?” to “guess what the neighbour did?”, we arrange our days in the form of a narrative to help ourselves, and others, connect with our experiences.

Using narratives is not only a powerful way to express ourselves, but also to learn about our relationship with the world around us. Stories are thus an easy and fun way to talk to children about difficult topic, and are useful to pique their curiosity and interest about the world.

Setting aside time every day to read aloud and share stories with children exposes them to a wide vocabulary and provides them with verbal and visual stimulus – an important exercise they are missing since the closure of schools.

The Vygotskian principle of mediated learning is a psychological theory that suggests children have a limit to what they can learn alone.

However, if they are guided and supported by a parent or caregiver, they are able to learn more, and at a faster rate. An incredibly important impact of reading together with your child is the powerful bonding that occurs between adult and child during this activity.

Paired, interactive storytelling - where the parent and child engage in a story - is an easy way to inspire conversation, curiosity and bonding, whether it is a written story, radio story or an oral story you tell your child yourself.

Each home and each child will require their own routine, whether it is 15 minutes a day, or an hour or more of reading and telling stories.

The key aspect is ensuring your reading and storytelling space is safe and fun, and helps children feel comfortable to ask questions, absorb information and engage in the content.

This activity serves as a potent tool for child and parent to engage meaningfully during a time of uncertainty.

A good resource for parents looking for free children’s stories in different South African languages, as well as tips and ideas on how to share them, is the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign’s website, SABC radio stories and newspaper supplement.

This way families can access a range of stories (with low data usage) on their cellphones and other devices  in the safety of home.

Parents and caregivers may wonder about the benefits of reading to children who cannot yet speak or read at all. Perhaps you are at home with a newborn or child below the age of six. It’s very important to note that reading to children does not only include children who are of school-going age.

The first few years of a child’s life are a foundational period for both cognitive and emotional development. Children’s brains grow at a rapid pace at this stage of their lives,  and they absorb not only what they see and hear, but the relationship between themselves and their caregiver.

Research has shown that this sets down the psychological “blueprint” for how the child may interact with the world and others later. The more positive engagement and stimulus a baby receives, the better for their overall development.

Using stories as a tool for interaction with a baby – making faces, creating character voices and showing pictures – helps to create a healthy attachment and provides stimulus for cognitive development.

Today, adults and children are bombarded with stories about the global crisis. This can be overwhelming and distressing for the best of us. Setting time aside to reconnect with your children and family members during this time may help alleviate your and their stress and loneliness.

Establishing a set routine in which reading aloud together and sharing different stories not only helps children maintain their literacy development but also creates a playful space in which you and your child are able to connect and reduce stress using the power of narrative.

Malini Mohana is a clinical psychologist based in Gauteng working with adults and children in community clinics. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.