Dr. sci Mirela Badurina, gestalt psychotherapist, integrative psychotherapist for children and adolescents, explained to Faktor how the coronavirus situation affects children, how to talk to them, how to spend time with children during isolation and how to coordinate work from home with parents and all other daily commitments.

How does isolation and the whole coronavirus story affect children?

In this extraordinary situation in which we and the whole world find ourselves, it is normal that many of us are worried, scared and upset and living with uncertainty is not easy. These are all normal reactions, especially in the phase of changing habits, and we need some time to adjust to it, both adults and children.

Children will know that you are worried and upset even if you try to hide it. They react to what they see in their environment, more than what you tell them. Children are vulnerable, as are adults, but they are also equipped with the capacity for resilience-skills in dealing with difficult situations, provided they are provided with clear and appropriate support from the environment. Children’s reactions can be different, especially in these first days, when their and adults’ routines change. Regardless of your child’s age, the child may feel anxious or have other strong emotions. Some children react immediately, while others may show difficulties much later. The way a child reacts can vary depending on the child’s age, previous experiences and how the child usually copes with stress.

Children mostly react to what they see from their parents and loved ones around them. So, when parents, educators can behave calmly and confidently, regardless of their anxiety and concern, and can sincerely share it with their children, talk to them about it, then they provide the best support to their children. That is why it is very important that adults can adequately deal with their stress reactions, normalize them and thus give the necessary emotional security, support and protection to their children. It’s really hard sometimes and that’s okay. But if it becomes everyday and parents feel that they cannot cope with their intense feelings and thoughts on their own, that their daily functioning and relationships are disrupted, it is important that they seek professional help for themselves.

Can they be aware of what is happening?

As children are daily exposed to information from different sides, from adults, from the media, friends, teachers, etc. were aware of it or not, understood or not, what is quite certain is to recognize emotions from the environment. We encourage the child to talk, to ask him what he knows and what he thinks, what worries him about the coronavirus. Sometimes adults believe that by avoiding talking about a certain topic, they are protecting the child. Often in this way the child feels that something is hiding from him, and thus that the problem is too frightening, which can result in the child’s worries becoming even more intense.

Thus, avoiding talking to a child in the best of intentions to protect the child can do more harm. Children may misunderstand what they hear, have some image and fantasy about it, develop specific fears, which affect their feelings and behaviors. Some children may seek more physical intimacy, call their parents more often or have nightmares, may begin to urinate in bed, be irritable, overreact, withdraw, lack energy. Therefore, no matter how uncomfortable we are, it is important to talk to the child, give them enough time and space to express their feelings through play, drawing, taking into account their age and level of development.

It is important to ask them what worries them and correct possible wrong conclusions and fantasies that the child has, by giving clear, most reliable information in a vocabulary that the child understands. It is not good to go into extensive explanations that go beyond the child’s capacity to understand and thus overwhelm them, but not diminish them. We need to be patient and be there for the child and with the child.

How to explain to them that something is different, that they can’t go out, do their usual activities, go to school, trainings, birthdays … And how to spend quality time with children? What if children are of different ages, how to coordinate their activities without spending time in front of the TV?

First of all, we need to be kind to ourselves and others, able to recognize and control our own anxiety, know that you are not alone in this, be there for each other, focus on useful information about the virus based on facts and follow the recommendations of relevant institutions.

It is important to adapt and explain the information to children according to their age.

As preschool children (2-6 years old) are more in tune with parental emotions, they are influenced by them, it is important to provide them with structure and predictability. It is important that the structure of the day is reminiscent of the structure to which they are accustomed, for example in kindergarten. Which means waking up at the usual time, daily hygiene, brushing teeth, breakfast and getting dressed, then preparing activities, for example reading a picture book, drawing. It is important that parents lead these activities. I know of a kindergarten in Sarajevo, which has adapted its activities to this crisis, so that children and parents, online, are supported by offering their presence and various activities. Preschool children are given security through structure by significant people, such as parents and educators.

The suggestion for parents is to agree with the children on two or three rules that apply to all household members and agree on a reward for adhering to the rules, but also the consequences if we break them. For example, in order to respect a preventive health measure, it is a great idea to create a song for about 20 seconds while washing your hands with small children, so that they know how to do it themselves later and praise them for it. Suggest some joint home hygiene activities and involve the children in it, so that they too will feel they are contributing to the good. As a reward, they can choose a board game that you will play together in the evening.

Talk about why you don’t go to school or work and clearly emphasize that the most important reason to stay at home is that in this way we take the best care of ourselves and our loved ones and help our community not to spread the disease to others. We are doing well. It is a way for children and adolescents to feel their contribution to combating the spread of the virus, which contributes to their empowerment and development of resilience-coping skills to cope with stressful situations. By doing this, we will do long-term well-being for our children, because we teach them to take care of themselves and take care of others, and thus strengthen the development of empathy.

Adolescents (13-18 years old) have probably heard and know a lot about COVID-19 and its potential danger. They are mature enough to understand how it spreads, to understand the importance and adherence to preventive measures and future risks. Have open conversations with them, starting with open questions about what they know, what worries them, and how they feel. Children of this age are mature enough to watch the news with you or go online and explore trusted places to learn more about the virus. Talk about what they see and read and how illness can affect their lives and the lives of others. Involving adolescents in activities to help and be part of family protection (to find new relevant sources of information, to share them with you, to help younger siblings in their responsibilities, organizing the day, cooking …) helps them feel valued, and this strengthens their identity.

Parents now mostly work from their homes, in addition to having fun and babysitting their children, and helping to write homework, especially in smaller classes. How to harmonize all this without the youngest suffering, how to approach them?

True, it is important to be aware that we are organizing as best we can at this time, even though we may not be happy with it. Let’s take care of ourselves and others and lower our criteria, lower our expectations of ourselves by focusing on the little things that are, perhaps, more than enough at the moment. Organizing the day in such a way as to respond to school or business obligations, the needs of the child, partner and parental duties, time dedicated to giving warm words to our relatives and friends, is not easy, and sometimes impossible. That is why it is important to make a routine with small steps, step by step. Especially because it will not be easy for parents who work from home.

It is important that the employer, but we also have an understanding for it. Of course, the younger the child, the greater the chances that the organization of work from home will be difficult for us. Happier are those whose employer has an understanding for it and allows for flexible working hours, so we can commit to our business commitments earlier in the morning or later in the night. Also, it would be good to provide one part of the apartment, if possible, in which to work, because it is very difficult that we will be able to work with a laptop without the children around us. It is also important to prepare the child and tell him that you will work now, that you need half an hour to do it, agree on what he will do during that time. It is expected that the child will try to break the agreement and look for you. Postponing a child’s need to play with him “now” while you work is ok. You can tell him “I’ll be happy to play with you, but in half an hour as we agreed.” With older children it’s much easier, especially if we can reconcile our work and their school obligations.

And let’s not forget that we act responsibly by protecting ourselves and others from potential coronavirus infection. Let us be aware of this and harmonize with each other, because it is a common communion that we have never experienced in our lives. Let us stay and be good, caring and generous to each other, to our partners, children, and especially to our seniors. Let’s demonstrate the deep life values we have and be there for each other, in these challenging times.