Abnormal is the new normal for children in lockdown - 7 tips for parents

20 May 2020 - 06:00 By Tanya Farber
There are ways to manage our kids' mental health before they drive us crazy during lockdown
There are ways to manage our kids' mental health before they drive us crazy during lockdown
Image: Supplied

The mental health of our children should be given careful attention during these strange times, said Carol Surya, a psychologist who has authored books on positive parenting.

On Tuesday, she was in conversation with MyHealthTV host Ronald Abvajee and renowned actress and performance poet Lebo Mashile.

Here are seven pearls of wisdom from their conversation:

Abnormal is the new normal in children’s behaviour

“What we would think of as abnormal symptoms in our children are normal symptoms during lockdown,” said Surya.

This requires parents to reframe their own perception of how a child is experiencing the lockdown, and not to worry.

Their sleeping habits could be messed up, their appetites have changed, and the amount of time they’re spending on a screen is inevitably much higher than before.

“I think the important thing is to lower our expectations at this time,” she said.

Not all screen time is equal

Studies are showing that well over half of parents are concerned about their children’s excessive use of screens during pandemic lockdown. 

Surya said the amount of time on a screen used to be the main concern during lockdown, but now there are three things we should consider.

The first is still time, but we must accept they will be on screens a lot more than during normal times.

The second thing is quality: what are they doing on the screen? Engaging with friends is different from playing a violent game for half an hour.

The third one is who they are with. If they’re playing online with a sibling, or remotely with a friend elsewhere, that’s one thing. If they’ve logged onto a game where strangers can speak to them, that’s another thing altogether.

Surya also suggested doing some screen time together, or what she calls “co-viewing”. 

Give them three choices

She suggested that parents with younger children in particular go with the "three choice’" rule. 

Children do not want to be without boundaries and be able to choose whatever they want. Similarly, they don’t want to feel as if they have no agency over their choices. Generally, giving them three doable options is the best approach to contain and empower them at the same time.

“It is a magical miracle the effect that this has on a child,” Surya said.

Do comforting things together

Mashile said one of the challenges for her has been managing her own emotions in front of her children. 

Surya said it is okay to share your worries, but include the reassurance that everything will be managed.

“One of the most challenging conversations with my son, who is nine, is to say: ‘I don’t know what three months from now is going to look like’. I am also afraid and worried, and it was very scary to be that vulnerable with him,” Mashile said.

She said she found it “reassuring” that Surya described children’s current symptoms during lockdown as "normal".

Surya advised parents to sometimes practice self-care while also caring for their child’s mental health.

She said there is no reason why parents and children can’t do relaxation techniques and breathing exercises together - thereby alleviating your own stress and theirs, and spending quality time together doing something meaningful.

Resist ‘fixing’ things for them

Surya said it is common for parents to want to jump in and fix things for their children as adults navigate through new territory, including homeschooling, which many parents have never done before.

“When we see they are not coping, we go into action and fix and help and even do it for them. But my question always is: 'What am I trying to teach them?' If you fix it for them, you’re teaching them to be mother- or father-oriented. If you encourage them to do it themselves, they learn resilience. Help them name their feelings. If you name it you can tame it.”

They don’t need to grasp what’s going on in the same way adults do

The pandemic is a seminal moment in our history, but children can’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, grasp the enormity of that.

Mashile recalled how her birthday party was cancelled as a child because Nelson Mandela was coming out of prison.

“I was p***ed because my birthday sleepover was cancelled,” she said, adding that the pandemic and lockdowns don’t “register as history for children because their lives are in the making”.

She said parents might expect children to "be in the moment with us" when President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation, for example, but “they get bored by news”.

Surya said this is an important moment in history, but if your child is not in the phase to grasp that, they will “look back on it one day and process it as having been important then". For now, just let them be.

“Children are very present. What they care about is this moment, and if that moment means ‘I can’t go to the beach because of lockdown’, that’s okay.”

Also share positive news

Surya said news reports about Covid-19 tend to focus on the “negative, the dangerous and the precautionary measures”, and it is human nature for it to be that way.

However, “it can impact quite negatively on children who might experience overload from all the news and conversations about Covid-19”.

She said parents tend to talk about the disease and maybe deaths in front of children, but don’t talk about the number of recoveries, for example.

By giving them the fuller picture, it can help ease their stress.