It’s been the year nobody will ever forget - and it’s not over yet. With international borders closed and schools shuttered all over Asia, Gayatri Bhaumik finds out how families are dealing with the mental health implications of locked-down kids.
Shuttered schools and sports clubs have affected children all over the world (photo courtesy Shutterstock).
Our lives have been turned upside down this year and none more so than those of our children.
From closed schools, to cancelled weekend sport, lockdown and, in some cases, mandatory quarantine and self-isolation, our children’s once familiar landscape of routine and predictability has been ripped apart.
Being separated from friends and family is difficult for everyone, but it can have especially negative effects on children in terms of mental health.
Younger children may also struggle to understand what’s happening or might simply not have the right tools to deal with what 2020 has brought us.
Schools have started to return across the Asia Pacific region, but often on a part-time basis and in a socially-distanced, far from normal, manner. In Hong Kong, younger children are not set to return until the new academic year.
According to Shelly Chutke, Lower School guidance counsellor at Hong Kong’s Canadian International School, parents should be on the lookout for behavioural and emotional changes as these could be a manifestation of mental health issues.
“Any change in normal behaviour or patterns could be a symptom of other conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression. For younger children, watch out for excessive crying, irritation, and returning to behaviours they’ve outgrown.”
Wellness counsellor Michelle Harris adds that symptoms may also include panic attacks, fear, confusion, compulsive or food disorders, difficulties concentrating and low motivation. These can manifest physically as headaches, disrupted sleep, or perhaps digestive issues, which can have further mental health effects.
Lockdown, or quarantining away from home in government accommodation or an allocated hotel, is a situation many families across the region are having to face. All Asia Pacific countries currently have a 14-day compulsory quarantine in place for arrivals.
Natalie Beatty, a mum of two, is currently quarantining at a hotel in Brisbane, Australia, after returning home from several years in the US.
In March, Australia closed its borders and ordered all arrivals to quarantine in government allocated hotels. Travellers must remain in their hotel rooms for the entire duration, with food delivered to them. Lack of fresh air has been a cause for concern for many repatriating families.
“We can go outside for about an hour a day,” said Beatty. “But we have to apply for this daily. Our room faces the back alley of the hotel and receives no sunlight. The building opposite is so close that we can’t see the sky from our rooms.
“And the food is awful. We’ve said no fish, but it keeps coming, often stone cold. There’s not a lot we can do about it.”
Five days into their two-week stint, Beatty has already started to notice the effects on her children. “My son (aged 14) is my worry. He won’t come outside with us and I’m concerned about his vitamin D levels and his mood. He’s not getting any direct sunlight at all and there’s not even any natural light coming into the room.”
It’s not all bad news, though. Some parents have seen their kids reap some surprisingly positive effects while schools have been closed. Much of this stems from the fact that children these days lead busier, far more structured lives than their predecessors.
School closure for many has been a much-needed break. Suddenly, students aren’t being forced to maintain an overcommitted schedule.
The result? They’re less stressed. With routine out of the window, they’ve had the time to relax and just be kids, explore new interests or simply spend more time with their family.
“Children feel less anxious and stressed as life becomes more relaxed,” says Harris. “Not having to get up so early or having to face daily pressures, the stresses of travelling, or the extra activities [allows them to] enjoy being at home. They feel safe and secure. They can eat and rest well, and it’s an opportunity for them to learn new things and life skills around the home or develop new interests.”
There are several things you can do to ensure children stay mentally strong. Keep communicating, as bottling up their feelings can create further mental health issues. Allow children to express their feelings and grievances but teach them to deal
with this appropriately.
“Have a daily check-in and encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling. And be sure to validate this – there’s no right or wrong way to feel,” says Harris. “When talking, be open and honest. Share factual, age-appropriate information and help put the situation in perspective.”
Creating a daily routine can help kids get through an unusual period with fewer negative effects.
“Children like structure and boundaries to work within, it helps them feel safe,” Harris points out. There are many ways to do this, but you could begin by building a day around your three meals and scheduling time for reading, talking to friends, and exercise, for example. But, try to limit technology.
“An important part of the daily routine is the inclusion of breaks away from the screen,” Chutke advises. “These could be in the form of family games, chess, mindfulness activities, dance, or yoga.”
Limiting screen time can be especially helpful for children home-schooling online.
Children are used to spending a lot of time with friends at school and after-school activities, so it can be a huge change to suddenly only see their immediate family. Help your kids maintain their social relationships by encouraging video calls with their grandparents, or perhaps using Netflix Party to watch a movie on Netflix with their friends, for example.
Angela Watkins, a psychologist and counsellor at Hong Kong’s Red Door Counselling, says parents should recognise that teenagers are going through an especially important developmental period which requires them to maintain social connections.
“Teenagers are going through a natural period of separation and independence [from their families] so their friends are very important,” she explained. “How they interact with their friends can be a source of identity and being separated from that can be challenging. We want to help teenagers stay connected to their social network in a meaningful way.”
If you are in quarantine or lockdown, it can be all too tempting to let your kids go into full-on vacation mode and let them spend the time doing exactly what they want. But, this can easily lead to boredom and increasing frustration.
If you’re heading into quarantine and are able to plan ahead, pack some games or jigsaws or bring a yoga mat so you can all work out.
You’ll almost definitely have access to the internet, so there are plenty of online resources you can use, too, whether it’s using Duolingo to learn a language or accessing Google Arts and Culture to tour the world’s greatest museums and national parks.
“I enjoyed this time with the kids,” said one expat mum-of-three of her lockdown experience in Phuket, Thailand. “We always had a jigsaw on the go as I found repetitive activities very soothing. We bird watched in the garden, painted and relished the slower pace of life.”
And so although we find ourselves in a highly unusual, probably never to be repeated situation this year, with some thought and planning, there’s no reason it can’t be turned into a positive experience.
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