The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly shifted human civilization on an absolute granular level, upending millions of lives all over our tiny planet. The once fast pace of life has slowed down to such a degree that it has enabled us to re-evaluate our goals, dreams, choices and relationships.
Being forced into a prolonged state of social isolation with only one’s family, while a global pandemic rages on just outside your front door is a truly unique – and hopefully, a once in a lifetime experience!
The uncertainty about the pandemic’s duration, limitations in health care resources, lack of social stimulation, and financial losses have led to great emotional distress and psychological manifestations in both the young and the old.
This has been particularly challenging for families where parents have had to manage children’s care and education while juggling the new demands of working from home and concerns for elderly relatives. But what impact had this significant break in normal routine had on children and adolescents?
Hopscotch and ‘sellang gewal’
On a positive note, many children have benefited greatly from spending more time with their parents and grandparents. They were given the opportunity to learn new skills with their family by cooking new recipes together, helping with household chores, making arts and crafts, and some even turning back to creative entertainment beyond technology to the nostalgic, bygone era of hopscotch and ‘sellang gewal’ (play house). However, this is not a blanket truth within families all across our little island.
Consultant Child Psychiatrist at Lady Ridgeway Hospital and a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, Colombo, Dr. Dulangi Dahanayake, states that a family unit plays a critical role in the mental wellbeing and physical development of children.
“A child forms what we call an ‘attachment relationship’ with a parent or guardian in the family environment during the formative years of his or her life, which ultimately serves as a template for all future relationships. It is where they learn how to regulate their emotions and develop a sense of self as a separate and valued being. This necessity for psychological connectedness with another human being is vital to the survival and satisfactory development of a child not only in the psychological domain, but also in the physical and cognitive domains,” she stated.
“Neglect, emotional abuse and other traumatic experiences in early life, including exposure to domestic violence as well as inadequate social stimulation impacts adversely on their development. In the past, families were more often than not extended; children had their grandparents or aunts and uncles to turn to when their parents were not around. But now, mostly within Colombo and the suburbs, children are confined to nuclear families and hence may lack an adult figure who is emotionally available, especially as parents struggle with their own mental health difficulties and other demands in the context of the pandemic,” she also stated.
Furthermore, an abrupt change in the learning environment and limited social interactions posed an unusual situation for children’s developing brains. Although online schooling and e-learning operations were immediately deployed to make up for the closure of academic institutions, it doesn’t seem to be a complete solution.
“Children draw certain unique and irreplaceable advantages from attending a school setting such as imitating and learning acceptable social behaviour, leadership skills, teamwork, and peer-to-peer interaction. This is true of young children as well as adolescents who are transitioning into adults. Moreover, without proper parental controls, there is an increased likelihood that children may get addicted to their screens rather than benefitting from them,” she continued to state.
Accepting, adapting to and surviving challenging times
To better cope with these difficult situations, Dr. Dahanayake says that being available to ones’ children’s emotional needs and validating their feelings are positive first steps towards better supporting their growth.
“A critical element of maintaining a healthy mental state in children is to be emotionally available to them by paying attention to their problems and validating the emotions they express without brushing them aside. Establish daily routine and structure, prioritize time for family activities, and set down rules to support healthy habits including good sleep hygiene. This includes regular bedtimes, no screen time at least an hour or two before bed and no caffeinated drinks in the evenings,” he said.
“Also, be mindful that children are extremely impressionable beings, and parents must make a conscious effort to modelling positive behaviour they want their children to adopt. Without adequate social stimulation from peers or teachers, parents are all that is left for inspiration. Be vigilant for behavioural and emotional changes in children, which could escalate to more serious mental health issues and please don’t hesitate to reach out for help as needed,” he also stated.
Inspiring a culture of ‘Honda Leda’ within our families
A Sri Lankan brand that is driving public dialogue on family wellbeing is Softlogic Life, with its award-winning ‘Leda Leda’ campaign. The campaign points out that developing a ‘Honda Leda’ (good sicknesses) culture within family units can go a long way in ensuring the mental and physical wellbeing of all members, particularly during the ongoing pandemic. Indulging in family activities with children and fulfilling their emotional requirements will undoubtedly lend to grooming a strong, positive and emotionally balanced future generation.
It is then ultimately up to us, to work as a community and country, to secure and guide our children to a better world, where mental health is as important as physical health and families adopt this positive culture of ‘Honda Leda’ to not just survive but thrive.