How prepared are we for conversations on sensitive and emotional topics with our children?
May 7th is Children's Mental Health Day and we wanted to address this important topic in light of the current situation.
As we trudge through these unprecedented times, managing multiple roles under the same roof besides internalising all the miserable news from around the world is nothing short of a constant mental battle for us, adults. Evidently, anxiety, insecurity and fatigue are on the rise.
Likewise, children have borne the brunt of the situation with several social restrictions in place. Kids in many parts of the world have been home for over a year, unable to meet peers or play out freely, and constantly in the company of the same adults, mostly the overworked parents. More importantly, as parents try to keep up with the rapidly changing rules and situations, kids are inadvertently exposed to information that is above and beyond their comprehension and processability more frequently than usual. While very young children can sense anxiety around and reflect through their behavior, this chaos can affect the psyche of slightly older children, leading to different psychological issues.
Here is a true story of a little boy in India, as described by the mother.
One fine day, this past month, my 8-yr old came to me teary-eyed and asked “Ma, do you think I’d live a full life? Looks like I will be gone before I grow old.”
I was caught unaware and totally bowled by this. I swallowed the lump in my throat and sat him down while processing and preparing to respond.
He further went on to say that he is constantly hearing of COVID-related deaths and fears that sooner or later we may also fall sick.
My first thought was to be honest and not confuse him. Luckily, my biology background came to my rescue. I leveraged his knowledge of the food chain; it helped me explain that all living things go through a cycle; life has a beginning and an inevitable end.
The next question was about cause of death and the experience (what attention to detail, I say!). He had, by chance, watched a scene of a building collapsing and people struggling (from a movie that the adults were watching the previous week). Yet again, I did not want to create unrealistic illusions in his mind. Though I wasn’t sure how well this would work out for him, I took this opportunity to explain that certain things are beyond our control; all we can do is to be aware of possible mishaps in every situation and take necessary precautions.
From this point, it took us several weeks of highs and lows, one-one open yet truthful conversations, repeated affirmations and a bit of spirituality to get back to normal (at least for now). He had refused to read the Potter series and even other detective stories as they involved death, murder or illnesses. Also, he was particular not to discuss this with others in the family and every day we had private conversations as and when required. I assume that my honesty and willingness to provide appropriate details (the toughest part for a parent) were convincing and made him trust me.
The emotions were the strongest when the house was quiet or when we had exhausted all the activities for the day and at bedtime. It was an overwhelming experience for me as he would ask for stronger positive/ motivating words so that this feeling would vanish immediately. There were days when I contemplated seeking professional help but wasn't sure if remote sessions (due to the pandemic) will be impactful.
Though I could not whip up an instant magic to rid my child of his fear, undivided attention, consistent assurance and sincere explanations helped us sail through this and come in terms with the harsh reality. Thankfully, after a 2-day meetup with his cousins, he is back to his cheerful self. This week I heard him tell “Everything in this world comes to an end” matter-of-factly to another child in his class during a discussion about life. He beamed at me triumphantly, and I felt I did it right.
While it is established that it is common for children to try and make sense of death at around 7 years of age, many of them are not vocal or openly approach a trusted adult for clarifications. Research shows that many times they gather information from adult conversations, direct personal experience, peers and exposure to media. It has also been proven that describing it as a biological event has a positive influence on their understanding of the concept.
Irrespective of the kind of fear or anxiety a child goes through, this is how a parent can help.
Accept and acknowledge
Empathise with the child. Tell them that it is ok to feel the way they do; even adults fear different things.
Be available when they need you (Be aware that their feelings can intensify when you are on an important work call).
Eye contact is important for the child to develop trust.
Be honest and provide age-appropriate, logical information.
Choose your words carefully so that they are not misled or confused.
While some kids may just need 1 or 2 conversations around the topic depending on their age, extent of mental impact, effectiveness of communication and the depth of information to feel better, some may take longer, require more effort or physical presence.
Be patient and persistent
Identify patterns in the episodes, if any.
Engage the child in activities that develop positivity during their vulnerable time of the day. Make a daily schedule if need be.
DO NOT HESITATE TO GET HELP from an elder family member, a friend of yours or a professional if it is overwhelming for you. At times, it is natural for the personal fears of the parent to come through such conversations irrespective of the brave face you put up.
More importantly, take a deep breath and brace yourself. This too shall pass.
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