Parenting in a pandemic

To counteract bad habits being instilled in children by prolonged isolation at home, parents must lead by setting good examples

Feeling frustrated amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Bee posts on a web board that she feels lonely spending most of her time alone during stay-at-home. Although the junior high schooler chats with friends online, she feels it's not the same as seeing them in person.

Bee releases her frustration on the internet because she does not want to bother her parents who are experiencing a difficult time due to the severe economic downturn.

Bee is one of many young people suffering from the negative effects of the pandemic. Yet adolescents will have to remain at home longer as the Ministry of Education has postponed the start of the new school semester to June 14. According to a 2020 Unicef survey of Thailand, at least seven out of 10 children and young adults reported that the pandemic has affected their mental health and caused stress, worry and anxiety.

Dr Prani Paveenchana, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Manarom Hospital, who also runs a Facebook page called "Mor Maew Nam Lao Ruang" (facebook.com/sealpsychiatrist), said that during last year's lockdown, patients visited the hospital less often than usual because they were worried about the virus. At that time, only people suffering from severe issues continued to see psychiatrists. After the lockdown eased, most young patients who visited the hospital were suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The psychiatrist said that ADHD is associated with structural brain abnormalities.

Dr Prani Paveenchana, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Manarom Hospital. (Photo courtesy of Dr Prani Paveenchana)

"Patients with ADHD not only need medication but also need to manage their schedule and adjust their behaviour. Also, cases of children refusing to attend schools have increased. Youngsters do not want to return to schools because they are unable to adjust to new rules and discipline in schools. Some of them do not study or go to prep schools, so they have forgotten what they have learned. Some students who do not pay attention to their studies have ADHD and not all of them have been able to continue treatment due to lockdown. Moreover, the number of young people addicted to gaming or social media has also increased because the pandemic has limited their outdoor and real-time social activities and their parents are too busy and unable to monitor them closely," said Dr Prani.

The psychiatrist said that the Covid-19 situation is a traumatic event for children because they cannot live their lives normally.

"The number of patients with anxiety and depression has increased because their normal lives and routines have changed so much. The pandemic is a life-threatening situation that causes anxiety and stress in young people as they cannot play outside or see their friends. To avoid infection, they have to be careful about wearing masks, washing hands frequently and not touching their face, which is not natural for children," explained Dr Prani.

Due to the coronavirus, people also have to maintain social distancing. If the pandemic lasts longer and children are not able to socialise, it can affect their development.

"If children cannot play for a long period, it can affect their socialisation, communication, and language skills, as well as muscle development. Some young people connect with friends online but chatting via applications is not the same as talking with others in person. When people interact in person, we can observe other people's body language. We have to predict their thoughts, immediately respond to their actions and be responsible for our actions. If we make our friends angry, we must try to reconcile with them. However, we can just block our online friends," said Dr Prani.

Since the closure of schools has been extended, students have to stay home longer. This means that when the semester resumes again, some of them may refuse to go to school. What should parents do if this happens?

"Parents must figure out why their children do not want to go to school. Some students do not understand lessons, experience bullying, or have depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. Parents have to find the reasons and help their children out. Moreover, when a student returns to school, she/he should initially spend only a few hours at school in a safe space such as a library or first aid room. When feelings of insecurity arise, they should stay in that safe space and consult with someone," the psychiatrist suggested.

Limited to staying indoors, many young people have turned to playing games or spending time on social media platforms. Last year, the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Rajanagarindra Institute reported that Thai children and adolescents spent 35 hours a week on phones and devices even though they should not cross 16 hours a week. In the survey, 61% of 15,000 children and adolescents aged six to 18 years were at risk of being addicted to gaming because they played longer than three hours a day.

"Games and screen addiction causes the brain to change because when we tap the screen, it responds immediately. Youngsters who spend too much time in front of screens will have trouble concentrating. They cannot be patient and to figure out whether a child is addicted to gaming or too much screen time, parents must watch out for these four signs -- unable to manage their personal lives and daily function, becoming aggressive or irritated when unable to play, showing a desire to play more, and engaging in negative behaviours such as lying or stealing," explained the psychiatrist.

"To treat children with gaming or social media addiction, we must find out what caused them to become addicted. Addiction to games and social media can be the result of other disorders such as ADHD. Children with ADHD like anything that responds to their actions immediately. Some young people who have depression or anxiety suffer, so they spend time on social media to escape their world. Parents are key people to prevent these addictions. They must make rules of how many hours and when their children can use their device. Parents must keep the device with them and suggest other activities that their children may be interested in such as music, sports or arts," Dr Prani added.

Many people cannot separate their personal and professional lives since they work at home. Some of them have to eat and work in their bedrooms and this messes up their sleeping and eating schedules. Dr Prani suggests that both parents and children schedule activities and stick to them. Parents also should limit their time reading the news.

"Some parents like to keep up with the news all day which makes them stressed and children can sense that frustration. Parents should stick to their schedules so that children will understand their parents' working hours at home. After work, family members should have quality time together. They can play board games or sports together, so children do not feel neglected," said Dr Prani.

If a child feels lonely being alone too long, the psychiatrist suggests that parents let their children connect with friends via video calls.

"Parents should try to help their children live their lives as normal as possible but with precautions to reduce the risk of being infected. They should let their children talk or play through video call. Hence, a child can see how her/his friend is doing. If possible, parents can also let their children play with another child who they are certain is not infected but the children still have to maintain social distancing. This can help a child interact with other people," said Dr Prani.

* Not her real name