Confinement and disruption: How children are coping with the pandemic
 
 
Illustration: Soheir Sharara
 

Anas, 7 years old: I don’t think I will get the virus … I’ll get it if I don’t wash my hands and brush my teeth and if I touch my face or if I touch something with the virus. I do the things that keep the virus away. 

Beesan, Anas’s mother: Are you worried about your parents getting it?

Anas: I don’t know. A lot of people died from it, right? I am paying attention. But maybe we should get a microscope so we can see it? If we see it we can lay a booby trap.

If mom or dad get it, that would be bad because then I would live on my own. Do you know if you’re going to get it? 

Beesan: I don’t know for sure.

Anas: Maybe you won’t get it? 

Beesan: Do you worry about this sometimes? 

Anas: If my parents get sick, they can go to the doctor quickly and then come back better. It might happen. 

If they don’t go to the doctor, they could keep getting sick. 

***

Beesan is one of several members of the Mada Masr team who spoke with their own children, or children around them, about how they are experiencing the pandemic.

We don’t know how long the coronavirus pandemic and the state of emergency it has brought to the globe will last, but we know that for a generation of young children, it will be part of the story of the beginning of their lives.

“Most of us can retrieve some memory from the age of three or three and a half, and more solid memories from the age of six,” says Hend Badawy, a child psychiatrist who practiced in Cairo for nearly a decade before moving to London, where she currently practices play therapy. “If this situation continues for three to six months, and it takes a year to return to normal life, as some are saying, then most children under six will have some memory of this time, but not much. For kids over 9, the pandemic is likely to be a formative event.” 

Like all of us, children’s experiences of the current crisis depends on their health, their socioeconomic class, and where they live. For children whose lives change because of a loss of income, or who experience relatives getting sick or dying, those events will likely be defining memories of this period of their lives. 

In all cases, how the people around them handle the pandemic and its consequences will have a fundamental effect on the lived experiences of children and their memory of this time. “What will matter most is how their relatives are holding the home environment,” Badawy says. 

This can place extraordinary pressure on parents, who are already stressed themselves. “It’s important to remember that what children need are not perfect parents — there is no such thing,” Badawy says, stressing that we have also never been in a situation like this before in our lifetimes. “They need ‘good enough’ parents,” she said, referring to the idea advanced by the influential children’s psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

The answer to helping kids begins in speaking with them. Kids are likely to gather pieces of information from here and there — from the media, from overheard conversations — and then do what children tend to do: form a coherent, internal story to help them understand things. 

***

Omayma, Malak’s mother: So what is the coronavirus?

Malak, 11: It’s a virus like MERS, from the corona family. It first came from China, that’s where the first case was, because of bats, which are the animals that carry the most microbes and viruses because they move so much. And they can survive these things because they have these cells in their bodies that let them fight any viruses. 

“Don’t assume what children  know. Even if you think your child knows about the virus, sit down and have a conversation,” Badawy says. “Be prepared. Answer their questions only one at a time with short, simple answers. Don’t offer more information than what they have asked for. Give them time to process it, and they will come back and ask for more if they need it.” Visual guides like this one in both English and Arabic  can help parents engage kids’ curiosities about the virus, and explain and encourage the precautions being taken without feeding fear. 

Tell children that most people will not get seriously sick, that there are things we can do to keep healthy, and that people are working hard to find cures. “But don’t make any promises you cannot keep, and don’t ever lie, because you’ll probably get caught out when they come back and ask you the same questions later,” she says. Young children tend to ask questions over and over again — it’s a way for them to reassure themselves. 

***

Omaima: How do you feel about the coronavirus? 

Yaseen, Malak’s brother, 6: What’s good about corona is that dad is home a lot more because of the curfew. But it’s bad because we’re stuck at home! And that’s because of you and the government! 

Omaima: Are you afraid of the virus? 

Yaseen: I’m not afraid of Corona. It’s an annoying virus! I want it to finish and rid us of this. And I hope it goes away before my birthday. I’m turning seven on May 30. 

Omaima: What will we do if it’s still here during Ramadan? 

Yaseen: Even if it’s still here during Ramadan, we’ll go out. We’re not gonna stay here our whole lives! 

What seems to be at stake for kids is their access to diverse experiences and for things to look forward to. These can help inform the well-known idea that kids need routine. Routine makes children – and adults –  feel safe. Its disruption is stressful: the child doesn’t know what to expect. 

“We have to try and have some control over the day,” Badawy says. “Don’t be too strict or try to create the perfect home school, but don’t let the child feel that the morning is the same as the evening. Try and do one new or different thing each day,” she says, pointing out that one of the feelings heavily associated with depression is that each day is the same as the next. Simple things, like agreeing that on Fridays, we cook together, on Mondays, we paint together, for example, can help differentiate the days and anchor us in time. If possible, walks or drives outdoors are encouraged. 

Asked by their aunt, Nada, another member of Mada’s team, what new things are they doing now that they are home? Mariah and Mai, 7 and 5 years old, chanted  in unison: There is a legal distance of one and a half metres. We have to stand apart for our breathing and in case someone is sick, and we can’t be in crowded places. 

“We sleep late, that’s new. We’re watching Beauty and the Beast for the first time time. And we do new backflips and new moves! We don’t go out at all. The only time I see the street is when I look out of the balcony, and when I feed the cat that comes down from the roof,” Mariah says. 

The disruption to regular routine is exacerbated in the current situation, Badawy says, because there is continuous change to all variables, constant updates on the pandemic and what we can and cannot do outside the home. Parents also have to explain restrictions which can be confusing for a child, like why the government allows us to go to the supermarket but not to school. 

Perhaps most troubling of all, she says, parents cannot tell their children when it will end. This can be worse for children with a history of mental health disorders. 

Kids can become aggressive, or withdraw, as the mother of a 7 year old says. “The first week (of staying home), he was happy with sleeping in and not going to school. The second week, he started getting dressed as if he was going out, and putting his backpack on, and going about what he was doing in the house. But then in the third week, he went completely silent. I can hardly drag a word out of him. When I managed to, he said he was upset that when me or his father come into the house, we don’t hug and kiss him right away, that we gesture to him to wait until we’ve washed our hands and changed our clothes.” 

Children, in general, cannot express their feelings in words. This is why they have tantrums and meltdowns, and can “act out” with aggressive behaviour; they are having feelings they do not know what to do with. Parents can help with this by borrowing methods from  play therapy — a form of psychotherapy that uses storytelling and play to allow children to express themselves. One popular example is engaging kids in a game in which they create a superhero character and build a story around him or her, allowing them to express how they see and feel about the people and world around them. 

Badawy says “When we express emotions more during play or conversation, they become less intense. This is very important for fear. Externalizing what we are going through helps us avoid processing our feelings in more psychologically challenging ways, or in disruptive behaviour. The feeling will find a way anyway. The more we talk about it, the less powerful it becomes.” She recommends storytelling with soft toys to help children express anger, for example, and messy or sensory play — otherwise known as letting kids play with a range of interesting material like flour, dry beans, shaving creams or water —  to help younger children relax.  

“There’s no doubt that screen time will go up,” Badawy says. “But remember that screens can detach us even more from the social life around us. We can try to mitigate this by offering interactive games, and particularly with younger children – be in the same room as them, commenting on what they’re doing.”

***

Suli, 10 years old, told her aunt Heba: School at home is annoying. You have to type your questions and wait for your teacher to see it and answer. But if you’re in class you can just raise your hand. And our teachers can’t write so much all the time, so it can be harder to understand them.

When Omayma asked Malak how she was feeling about her day, she said: When I woke up I felt ok. When I found out that instead of exams we’ll have to do a whole project, I felt like I was at zero. 

There are 24.2 million school-age children in Egypt, according to the most recent numbers issued by the Central Agency for Population Mobilization and Statistics.  They will have different feelings about staying home. Some, for example, those who experience bullying, may be relieved. But for the most part, kids we’re hearing from in their primary school years — when peer socialization is so important — say they miss their friends. 

While schools are working to offer online learning, the burden suddenly falls on parents to manage the entire learning environment. The general advice offered by Badawy as well as educational experts quoted in the media is for parents to use the opportunity, when they can, to become more involved in their children’s learning without creating pressure on everyone to set up the perfect temporary “home school.” It’s key to abandon the idea that parents will be able to replicate the school format at home. Tips for helping kids get into a new format include coming up with a shared schedule together and designating particular areas for schoolwork. 

For kids who are at key stages of learning, like learning to read, it may be helpful for parents to focus on that activity while adjusting to their own pace and interests. It’s a good time to encourage passion projects, and, where possible, to use their interests and activities to connect them to communities online – music classes or dance classes, for example). Using the internet to keep children in touch with other kids can also help them understand that they are not alone in what they are experiencing. 

***

For many children, the experience of someone they know or someone in their families getting sick, or dying, will become their defining memory of the pandemic. 

“If someone is ill and self-isolating in a room inside the house, be honest and frank with the child,” Badawy says. “Introduce the information yourself, don’t wait for them to find out. Their trust bond with you is so important.” Update the child with information such as: She has a fever and we gave her medication. This is what the doctor says. 

The child can talk to the isolated person over the phone, if they are well enough, or they can write them letters. “We can help them with this. We can sing songs or tell a story. We can play games like “I spy with my little eye.” Use any way to stay connected.” 

If the person goes to hospital, again deliver factual information, and give short, honest answers to their questions. It’s important to share and acknowledge their feelings. (‘I’m sad too, I miss her too.’) Explain that we can’t text or call, if that is the case. 

“It’s healthy to cry with a child, but without panic,” Badawy says.  “If you are very anxious, run through the conversation with a safe friend or relative before talking to the child.” 

In the worst case, of a relative or someone they know dying, again, Badawy says to parents and caretakers: “We have to break the news ourselves. Grieve with the child. Cry with them. Do the rituals you can do at home. Write them a letter, pray, name a star. Always give a truthful answer.Talk to them, again, about the virus: tell them that it is strong with some of us, but with most of us it is weak. Reassure them that you are there, with them.” 

***

“Thankfully, most kids will remember how we acted inside the house and how we handled this time, more than they will remember the virus itself,” Badawy says. “We have to look after ourselves as parents, otherwise we can’t help them.”

The way that kids react to emotional challenges is shaped by how the people around them do. It’s always important for parents to take care of themselves, but it’s become even more crucial in the face of the anxiety brought on by the pandemic. Even in close-quarter family isolation, Badawy advises parents to take time to themselves each day, to regroup and be able to care for themselves and their families. “I don’t mean time to cook or to work, or time with the other parent. I mean actual time alone, doing something relaxing or pleasurable or doing nothing at all. Wake up an hour before the children, or go to bed an hour later if you need to.” 

This can help everyone cope. Strains on family relationships are expected; divorce rates spiked in Chinese cities immediately after restrictions were lifted and divorce lawyers in the US report spikes in phone inquiries. This isn’t always a bad — sometimes marital relationships need to end. But co-parents in rocky relationships or in marriages that have effectively ended, while still cohabiting, will have to find ways of managing the extra time at home. “If the child is old enough and ready, I would suggest telling them that the parents are in a period of being business partners. Don’t force yourselves to be around each other. Agree on a family activity that you all do together regularly — lunch or dinner, for example. And try and physically separate the rest of the time, don’t force your child to be around tension and fights.” 

Sinking into children’s perspectives shatters the myth that we can be alone in a society — whether as individuals or as family units. 

Even when families seem cut off from the outside world, and are forced to manage much of their time as self-contained units, how the pandemic affects them and how they are able to cope with those changes is shaped by social and economic superstructures, the privileges they have access to and the ways in which those systems have come short for them. A child in a home with a garden will experience this pandemic in a fundamentally different way to a child in an apartment with no real windows. Children whose parents depend on daily or weekly wages are in a different psychological reality than those whose parents can work remotely, or those whose parents are in prison, or those who live with an abusive person. Much of the advice out there about parenting and homeschooling can seem tone-deaf to a family which is lacking essential needs or essential support. Just as it forces us to withdraw from society, the pandemic is a spotlight on the perseverance of sociopolitical and class realities  — perhaps more so when seen from the perspective of children, who force us, immediately, to think of our dependencies on one another. 

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Yasmin El-Rifae 
 
 

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