A not so simple childhood

With significant change comes stress and worry

By Chandrea Serebro

Being a kid is awesome. Exploring, playing with friends, learning new things in and out of school, hobbies and pastimes, lazy days and sleepovers, grampa’s love, and birthday parties.

Then came Corona.

And with the snap of its toxic fingers, any outlet that kids might have had to deal with their problems, their anxiety, their difficult feelings and experiences to make them more manageable was whisked away with their freedom and their outside time. Because, yes, says Ashley Jay, Educational Psychologist and author of Susie and the Worry Elephant which deals with how children experience worry and how to manage it, while our kids might be coming from a space in which there was already an overt increase from previous decades in prevalent issues even before Corona, “Many of the things that children enjoy doing serve to mitigate and somewhat dilute, or at least re-channel, some of these feelings.” But without these outlets in place, being a kid now…not so simple.

“Children were not prepared for what was about to come at all, and neither were we as parents,” says Nikki Munitz, Self-Development consultant with a focus on building self esteem to grow self-efficacy and confidence to handle life. “Children are anxious on so many levels. They recognise fear in their parents, and they feed off it. If parents aren’t handling lockdown well, nor will the children.” And Corona’s spores are far reaching, on every surface, and in the air, and the sanitisation of their space and their lives, on seeing the masks and that which is masked, and of course, the real fear of sickness, prevails. “There is a fear about the unseen enemy which is causing PTSD, as in a warzone. There is fear about how life will unfold on all levels,” says Nikki.

“The Corona virus can be regarded as an ‘on-going compound trauma’, which is a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and cumulatively. Other examples of compound traumas on a collective scale include the Second World War or the Great Depression,” says Ashley. Now most, if not all, parents of this generation could never have conceived that they would parent in a time which paralleled any of the historical trauma of their grandparents or parents, and, yet, here we are, and we find ourselves wondering if our kids, let alone us as parents, have the skills with which to cope.

“All the structures and routines, such as school, extra murals, and play dates, which provided them with additonal expectations, socialisation, and a sense of security, have disappeared. They’re also not used to being around their parents, adult caregivers, and siblings 24/7, which is neither healthy nor normal. Children of all ages have essentially experienced and may continue to experience grieflike symtoms based on a universal experience of change,” says Ashley.

“We know we’ve done nothing wrong and we know we’ve been excellent in abiding by the expectations of lockdown. Yet why does it feel as though we’re being punished?” asks KDL Social Worker Lisa Klotz on her blog. “It began as a creative outlet for me to process what was happening, to send messages of support and strength to the kids, and as a way of addressing their feelings and to help normalise them.” Lisa uses her own brand of instinctive humour which talks to the kids while getting to the heart of their angst, which is very real.

The issues kids are dealing withare widespread. “Some have thrived as independent learners, and others have struggled, especially those with ADD/ADHD or difficulty with self-management. Some children do better in a classroom with the ‘human element’ – the teacher/child relationship is a very big part of the child’s learning and enjoyment, says Ashley. “Yet, for many children, distance learning has given them an opportunity to step-up to the challenge and prove their unbelievable competence and resilience,” says Clinical Psychologist Lana Levin.

Virtual communication and learning relies solely on verbal interactions, explains Ashley. It means they can’t rely on non-verbal communication such as body language, which has subtle, yet effective, nuances that make up at least 50% of interactions. “Verbal communication on its own can be exhausting and lead to further emotional fallout such as refusing to do classes and homework, or not wanting to talk to family and friends.” Social distancing protocols have taken much of the essential contact of human relationships that people need to flourish.”

“I have seen a dip in many of my teen clients who are missing their friends and connection. In my younger clients, I am seeing distress around understanding what ‘The Virus’ is and how it has been interpreted both in their families and in general,” says Lana. “Children cannot rely on their world feeling predictable.”

“Being stuck at home may also magnify exisiting problems in certain family dynamics,” says Ashley, and home can be intense, especially because parents are dealing with all of these issues, plus their adult responsibilities as well. Conversely, though, there is the idea that the once prevalent FOMO (fear of missing out) has now changed to FOGO (fear of getting out), and this is equally challenging as chuildren now start to deal with the reality of integratingback into their worlds, only those worlds have changed irrevocably.

“Teens who are not returning to school, but whose friends are, are really feeling FOMO. There are also losses for both the grade 7s and Matrics. The 7s are missing out on being ‘the big kids’ in the school – who often have their first taste of adult respect as well as leadership. The matrics are missing out on their matric dances as well as the investment in their school lives as final year students after 12 years. The matric year is both challenging and momentous. The biggest loss is obviously the matric dance and for many it is finally getting a car license. The possibility of not going away at the end of the year with their friends is also a huge loss for school-leavers,”says Lana.

“For some kids, face-to-face schooling was fraught with anxiety. Kids who have been victims of bullying while at school are likley to be releived to be remote learning. And for some kids, socialisation may not have been negative per se, just distracting or intimidating. They may have felt pressure to look a certain way or to fit in socially, which can influence their participation and focus in class. Whereas the online environmant may allow for voices to be heard without the added stress of social anxiety,” says Ashley.

“While there is no precedent in the literature for this kind of collective impact, the general belief is that children will and do bounce back better after stress-inducing situations. Their resilience, however, is inherently tied to the stability and safety of their families. Children from families that are already vulnerable (tight finances, job loss, fractured/dysfunctional relationships) are likely to fare worse,” says Ashley.

But the hope is that, if we can survive what feels like will be a perpetual lockdown – as Lisa says in her blog, “The days may be long and by the end of the day it may feel like we’re doing the Cell Block Tango…” – there might be some positives that can emerge from a crisis such as this. “Not everything is bad. Many children have truly stepped up – from the little ones right through to high school – and proven themselves to be responsible and highly capable.” Families have been given the space to reconnect, spend quality time together, and find new ways of relating.

“While we cannot inoculate our children from the unpredictability and resultant stress,” says Lana, “we can offer them some buffer simply by addressing the possibilities that there may again be changes and that we, as human beings, cannot control this. Speaking to adults is difficult and often children do not do this. However, I would encourage children to find someone they can trust and can talk to. Many times, this person is a valued teacher, but sometimes, children need to see a therapist if they are really struggling. Sometimes people – adults and children – just need someone to listen to their anxieties and fears. A therapist will also help you find a way forward.”

Lisa sums it up well: “And here we are. We are all basically in a waiting room. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the situation to get worse, which will have one result, or better, which will have another. We wait and we wait and we wait. There’s no friendly blonde receptionist with enormous glasses and pink nail polish to tell me the exact timeline of events. ‘Where is she?’ I keep asking myself. Where is the person who knows? The doctors don’t know. The President doesn’t know. We look at statistics and figures and graphs and it gives us something to do while we’re all in the waiting room. But we have learned to just be in this space while we wait. There are millions of articles explaining how we are all meant to feel. Lost. Angry. Sad. Stockholm Syndrome. The list is endless. It’s okay to feel like that. But I do miss that lovely lady who always knew exactly when it was time for me to leave my house.”

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