Crisis in a kid’s world

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Sri Lanka has been in the midst of political, economic and social turmoil lately. In the face of a national crisis, everyone feels displaced but children in particular may be feeling as if their world has been turned upside down. There could be changes in their environment that can cause a disruption to the normalcy of their everyday life.

The predictability that brings them a sense of security may be hindered, and they may not react all that well. Being unable to go to school and see friends, little to no outings and outside activities due to lack of fuel and transport, power outages that disrupt sleep and playtime; these are some of the changes your child has had to adjust to.

So, it’s important to create an environment for healthy functioning, to sidestep any mental health issues that may manifest as a result of the calamity that surrounds them. These could be conditions such as trauma-induced stress, anxiety and depression.

Helping your children through periods of adversity entails being an alert caretaker who attends to needs and concerns vigilantly while modelling and encouraging positive behaviours that promotes coping in a healthy manner.

The key factors of how a guardian can safeguard their children’s emotional well-being can be summarised as the 5 R’s.

Record – monitor reactions and behaviour

Reactions to a crisis will vary from child to child, especially with different ages. Monitor your children to see if there are any changes in their behaviour and keep a lookout for signs that signal distress. Universal symptoms, regardless of age, include changes in sleep and appetite, trouble concentrating, irritability, headaches and body pains. There is also regressive behaviour in older kids such as thumb sucking, clinginess and tantrums.  

Particular behaviours specific to certain age groups may also manifest. Kids between 1 to 4 years of age may wet the bed or show a fear of the dark and being left alone. 5 to 10-year olds might become aggressive, withdrawn and compete for attention. Children older than 11 may show poor academic performance and exhibit a lack of interest in things they enjoyed before. Physical symptoms are also possible, like skin problems, rashes and asthma.

Such symptoms may be a sign that your child is not reacting well to distressing situations. As such, recognising that they may be feeling emotionally unbalanced is the first step to helping them feel better.

Respond – listen and react thoughtfully

In addition to changes in behaviour, children will most likely have questions and concerns about the state of the nation. They may express fears and worries and try to rationalise the situation, generally by directing these queries at parents. It’s essential to listen actively and acknowledge all that they have to say. Make sure to not minimise their feelings and fears, and create a safe space for discussion and sharing thoughts. You can encourage communication too by asking open-ended questions; for example, “How are you feeling about everything that’s happening?” or “How do you feel about what’s on the news?” Make note of any misunderstandings and errors in their understanding of the events, so that you can correct and clarify if needed.

When it comes to responding, the approach should be appropriate for the age of the child. Younger kids may not understand how to express themselves, so offer them the words and phrases they may need. Simple explanations are the best, and be prepared to repeat things to help them understand. Be honest but spare any details that may be unnecessary depending on the age, and correct any misunderstandings they may have. Act as a role model and show them how you can express your thoughts and emphasise that it can make you feel better. You should also encourage expression through creative activities. This includes playing with toys, storytelling and drawing. This can help them open up about how they’re feeling and process events.

Older children can be given additional information and even provided with resources (videos, articles) to broaden their understanding. Encourage one-on-one discussions and let them know that you’re available for any questions. For most age groups, sounds and images from the news may be too overwhelming. So, make sure to limit your child’s exposure to social media and ongoing news shows to avoid unnecessary stress.

 It’s also important to remember that some children will react by withdrawing and ignoring the situation.  Do not push them to engage, but instead always reassure them that you’re there to talk if needed and let them observe you modelling the positive behaviours of talking and expressing with others.

Reassure – reinforce safety and security

Children will need strong reassurance during times of adversity, so it’s important to communicate this to your children. Remind them frequently that they are protected and taken care of. After addressing any questions about the country’s situation, emphasise that efforts are being made to resolve the situation and that prospects are hopeful. Some kids may be especially worried about the safety of extended family members and friends. Make sure to connect with these loved ones and communicate frequently to further establish a sense of security within the child’s social circle. Another crucial reminder for your children is that they are not responsible for your or any other family members’ well-being. They need not worry about helping or solving the situation; a child only needs to be taken care of by their guardian.

While emotionally reassuring a child, their environment at home should also be made to feel secure and safe. Provide physical comforts like extra pillows and blankets, treat them to their favourite foods and encourage calming activities like reading or watching movies. Spend extra family time together so that your child feels a sense of togetherness.

Routine – maintain rituals and adhere to normalcy

When a child senses significant changes, they feel that their world is out of balance. As a caretaker or parent, you must aim to reinstate that balance by sticking to the normal, predictable rituals and routines that have been set for the child. Follow schedules as usual and try not to deviate from habits. As such, bedtimes, mealtimes and playtime should remain unchanged. Try as much as possible to not shift or remove routines set in place so that there is some sense of normalcy for the child to turn to. Even seemingly insignificant activities like watching TV and spontaneous play times should not be disrupted.

Regulation – support development and resilience

It’s crucial to teach your children about self-regulation. By teaching them to process their emotions and respond in a positive manner, children can deal with uncertain conditions. Encourage activities like exercise and meditation and set up opportunities for creative self-expression. As mentioned before, art-based activities like drawing, painting and playing with clay can be helpful. Playing music and reading can be stimulating activities that serve as a healthy distraction. Children who are bored and unoccupied are more likely to worry and feel distressed so such activities are important.

You can also encourage participation in chores and tasks to increase your child’s sense of self-efficacy. Giving them a sense of agency and purpose can really help to bolster their morale. Give them small but active roles in household tasks and allow them to assist. Letting them help with community-based activities like giving food to those in need or helping the sick can also be a good approach. Include children in family meetings as well, and acknowledge any input they have to make their views felt.

As a parent or guardian, it’s crucial to take care of your children’s well-being during times of turmoil. Guiding them and supporting them to build up an emotional resilience can ensure that your little ones will cope well during this period of uncertainty.

By Thiyashi Koththigoda