Some thoughts as to where lockdown has left our children.

| Dr Ilse Ruane

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has left us wondering how to accurately gauge the impact the situation is having on children, teens and people’s mental health and wellbeing. While people’s experiences of lockdown might be varied, everyone would confirm that it has been a challenging time in some or other way. 

Parents are aware of the complex and sometimes traumatic experiences that children have been going through during lockdown. However, it is worth unpacking some here (My list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Losses: We are grieving the loss of 2020; birthday parties, christenings, weddings, funerals, braai’s and travelling.  Perhaps more directly related, is that children will have relatives or friends that contracted the virus who may be ill. Some may have died of the coronavirus or due to other illnesses. But there are other losses too. For teens, the loss of their social life may be crippling,  the loss of visiting grandparents, a parent’s job as well as loss of normal life. Regardless the type of loss, many will be experiencing a sense of grief. Children and teens responds to their losses in different ways. Some may become sad and withdrawn, while others appear anxious or angry. Arguably one of the greatest losses has been school as we know it.  Being that school takes up the majority of a child’s day, we need to acknowledge the pivotal role schools will play. Schools provide more than just academics to children and teens. In addition to academics, children learn social and emotional skills. They get exercise, access to mental health support systems and other things that cannot be provided online. Schools and teachers, specifically, are used to being supportive to children through challenges that they face in life. In the current situation the physical access to schools and teachers has been challenging.
  • Challenging experiences at home: There are children and teens that entered lockdown in already challenging home environments. These circumstances have in all likelihood amplified during lockdown as families have been quarantined together. Others will have faced challenges for the first time. These may include: financial concerns, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, family conflict, caring responsibilities, hunger and housing concerns. 
  • Inequalities: When schools opened, we were plugging the proverbial hole and trying to make the best of the situation with hygiene protocols and practical tools of coping. In going forward, we will need to be cognisant of what has happened to children during lockdown. Not only casting our eyes towards those children previously identified as vulnerable but towards the majority, if not all, the children as they have not been left unaffected. The range of experiences children and teens have had during lockdown is challenging in itself. Inequalities experienced during the weeks of school closures etc will be felt in the foreseeable future. Gaps in attainment, physical and emotional health will have widen amongst children previously not identified as requiring assistance.  Planning to provide extra academic, physical and emotional support will need to be included going forward both at home and at school. 
  • Boundary crossing: Online schooling has brought an unthought of boundary crossing. Children and teens, depending on where they do their online schooling, be it at the dining room table or in their bedroom, cannot control who enters their home or their private space. Whether we realise it or not, some children and teens do not want the class or the teacher to have access into their private life. Teachers and friends may enter rooms or private spaces without the child or teens being able to deny access.  The same goes for teachers. Teachers are teaching from their homes, which implies a boundary of privacy has been crossed for which there was no choice given and no permission granted.  The online realm has provided us all with a glimpse into the private lives of people which we need to acknowledge and very respectfully navigate.
  • Uncertainty: Uncertainty has become our go to approach. One day we feel we know what’s happening, the next day the lockdown confusion hits us again. What are we allowed to do and with whom. In ‘normal’ life, rules and structure provide security for children. But their level of security and feelings of safety are been challenged.  Parents who previously preached and behaved in law abiding ways, have started transgressing the rules laid down by government. This leaves developing young minds with confusion. Which rules are ‘allowed’ to be broken? Teens may lack confidence as they have seen adults struggle with uncertainty and argue about how to manage the crisis. Fundamentally their sense of reliance on adults to be able to keep them safe may be in need of reassurance.  Attending school has also become something they can no longer rely on because one day they can go and the next they are not allowed to.
  • Transitions: As public schools had to close and August holidays commenced for private schools, the usual preparation that would have been done with all the learners in the country, for their transition into next year, will be lacking. This will be particularly challenging for children starting school, moving from primary to high school and those leaving school. Those teens who are approaching the end of their school time, the impact on exam results, employment opportunities and admissions  to tertiary institutions all hang in the balance. Where schools once represented stability and structure, these transitions have unbalanced the system which means we need to proactively work with the school system to assist children in gaining stability again. 
  • Friendships and bullying: Children and teens have been kept away of friends, grandparents, and people in general. Attachment is a concept that we think of in terms of infancy but we are engaged in attachment behaviours throughout our lives. Teens have attachment relationships with peers and significant adults which have been strained or disrupted during lockdown.  Friendships have taken strain during the extended lockdown as well as a result of social distancing. Children and teens will have communicated with their friends over social media, while others will have had little contact. As peer groups are important for teens, this may have resulted in some teens lacking the social support they ordinarily would have received to assist them in managing stresses. With the increase in communication via social media, the escalation of bullying has also been seen. Children who are not familiar with the do’s and don’t’s of social media communication have been thrown into the deep end of navigating an online world and identity which is often ahead of their developmental stage. Teens who have crafted out a bigger social media presence since lockdown, may have an inflated sense of self and identity. Such teens may be prone to bullying others due to their self-importance and minimal ‘normal’ counter balancing activities within the school and sports environments. Online grandiosity is a result of modern technology and was present pre-covid but the sport and school environment have previously assisted in restoring the balance. For example the teen who thinks very much of themselves because of his/her online presence is quickly brought down to size when s/he does not get selected for the team or when her peers outshine her in the science test. These behind the scenes balancing activities that school, and sports, create more balanced and competent children going into society.  Within the private and public schooling systems inequalities have been highlighted in terms of internet access as well as access to devices. Concerns have been raised regarding teasing resulting from what device your child has taken to school. In extreme cases, bullying has reared its ugly head as children from more financially able parents find it acceptable to comment on or even bully children with less expensive or older laptops or cellphones. 
  • Leaving children to their devices. As adults, we can attest to how challenging it is to disconnect from work in the digital age. It is no different for children. With many schools going virtual, it is crucial to help create clear boundaries and end times for where life begins and tech-time ends. We are placed in a double bind position where we need to embrace technology while at the same time moderate its dominance. Children have difficulty in transitioning from using electronics to electronic free time. We need to help children give up their electronics for the day. Give a 10 minute warning for when electronics are done and have the children do some activity straight after handing over their electronics to keep them motivated to hand them over. We cannot expect children to hand over a fun device and then have to sit doing nothing exciting. In teens the dominance of electronics since lockdown is staggering. It is more difficult to assist them in moderating their screen time as their devices have become the only way to communicate and socialize with friends. While this has played a vital role, the problem comes in when teens are spending the majority of their day online. We need to realise that children and teens cannot self-regulate their online behaviour or screentime. This is something that needs to be taught and role modelled. Whether it is IG, fortnite, tiktok, funimate, roblox or the likes, the online world is not the real world. We can motivate according to our own perspectives, use these unprecedented times as an excuse and find all the supporting evidence we want to, so as to explain away why we are allowing such extended screentime. However, the reality is we live in the real world, promoting an avatar existence is problematic. Fostering online identities which go unchecked or unbalanced with the real world experiences is seeding problems for the future.
  • Safer at home: At the start of the lockdown, we pushed the “safer at home” discourse. Now we asked to buy into the “school is safe” narrative.  As an adult this 360 degree shift is difficult to work with, now imagine how a child processes this. The international research community appears confident in their advice regarding return to school. I am a parent and I also feel the pull towards keeping my girls at home where they are “safe and virus-free”. As a psychologist (and a parent), I remind myself that attending school is normal. Interacting with peers, debating issues, making and not making the soccer team, and wearing a school uniform are all normal things to do. In a time when so much has been eroded away, we need to at least try engage in the dialogue around returning to school and continuing our lives. We also need to remember that children are a lot more resilient than we are as adults. They adapt to change (wearing masks and social distancing) quickly and learn to put their best foot forward to continue having fun.
  • Concerning behaviour: When something big happens in our lives, it is tempting to see everything in that context. Contrary to popular belief not everything is to blame on covid. Concerning behaviour is still concerning behaviour despite it occurring during covid times. Poor/bad behaviour still needs boundaries and discipline, perhaps even more so during covid times because discipline provides children with security. In other words, even though things are upside down in my world, mom and dad still have rules that remain constant therefore my life is still stable and I am ‘safe’. On the side of mental health, a few things to keep eyes on include: change in mood, tiredness, anger outbursts, secretive behaviour and signs of self-harming. 
  • You are part of the team: Some of the challenges facing you may seem overwhelming, but other people are facing them too. Learn to draw from each other’s strengths and build each other up when we can. Your team is wider than your home.  Your team includes friends, family, school community and anyone who has demonstrated a similar approach to building a future despite the constraints. 

The covid-19 situation has been a shared traumatic experience for individuals, families and communities, as well as nations. There is a need to process and understand what has happened. We need to understand what has happened so that we may grieve the losses that the family and community has experienced. This will enable us to work together in finding a way forward. For healing to occur we need to unpack the conversation concerning our experiences and build connections. This is done whilst being mindful that individual experiences are unique and no one view is more important. Moving forward and growing through these experiences is possible despite everything that is happening. The way in which we create spaces for growth and movement is in how we talk about things. We need to talk in ways that promote our moving forward, that promote the future and all the things we are striving for. Certainly there are obstacles, but by focusing less on the obstacles and more on the journey to overcome them, we create the reality where the obstacles will be overcome!