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Pandemic parenting in COVID carnage

Sunalini Mathew

Last year mums and dads navigated online classes, chores, sometimes sickness. This year, they’re talking to their children about death and a disease they aren’t sure whom it will get next

Suneeta Verma, whose husband died of COVID, is focussed on making ends meets, so she can bring up her six-year-old daughter to do better than to work in other people’s houses for little money.

Sneha Mitra* is looking for a counsellor for her four-year-old son. The family lost two elderly relatives whose laps he would fall into daily. He is expressing his grief in the way children his age would, with anger, distraction, and clinginess to his mother who also went into COVID quarantine.

Jatin Singh is confronting his own mortality, and though he has put in place mechanisms to take the virus head on, he worries, wondering aloud whether to adopt a COVID orphan.

For many, parenting in 2020 was about experiments with online classes, keeping kids occupied with board games so they wouldn’t become screen dependent, and explaining the gravity of the pandemic. Free downloadable books like Piperpotamus Learns About Coronavirus and Kids, Vaayu & Corona: Who Wins the Fights? helped. Some children experienced second hand stress, when parents faced layoffs from work or there was marital strife.

In 2021, many children have lost loved ones, or gone through periods of isolation because of sick parents. “Last year, children experienced trauma as witnesses. This year, it’s the immediacy of facing up to a traumatic experience,” says Dr Amit Sen, who runs Children First, a child and adolescent mental health service in Delhi.

He talks of his current experience in practice, where isolation or a parent’s hospitalisation has scared children. The emotional turmoil can go from children feeling dazed, not eating or sleeping well, despair, panic attacks, eventually leading to anxiety and depression, even self harm and substance abuse, especially if children don’t get support or understanding. Some who do, are better able to channelise their energy into taking on responsibility of reaching out to help.

“During such times when families and communities support each other, it takes away some of the loneliness and desperation that children may feel,” he says. It’s like a group hug, sans the touch.

Privilege of parenting
Mr. Singh’s family has been relatively lucky – they have not seen death or suffering close up. And while he jokes that he has done nothing more than provide his 14-year-old son with food, water, clothing, Internet, he has also introduced to him concepts of giving to those less privileged. “Also, I am trying to teach him what bad governance actually means,” he says.

For parents with younger children, it has meant more age-specific communication. Gaurav Chintamani’s almost seven-year-old son Ishaan sang R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ for his tabla teacher, who lost his mother — the family was close to her. Mr Chintamani played guitar, and put out a message on social media, a joint offering for a friend-like-family, going through a difficult time.

Initially, he was reluctant to share the news of death with his son, worried about him being scared. “But we’ve never treated him anything less than a full member of the family,” he says, adding that it was his wife Priya who broke the news.

“With children, in my experience, it’s always better to be honest and break it down to something simple. Death doesn’t have to be complex,” she says. Because Ishaan was open to nature, she found it easy to draw analogies from the life cycle of flowers and leaves, staying open to questions, but avoiding news on TV or social media.

In fact, they have stuck to their pre-pandemic routine of him going to bed by 8 p.m. and waking at 6 a.m. Dr. Sen says this rhythm works as a scaffolding that children can wrap their days around, a certainty in uncertain times.

One-point parenting
“Parents have become the only point of reference for their children,” says Vandana Nangia, who counsels families with both neurotypical and children with special needs. She acknowledges the ‘strong emotional and psychological stresses’ of parents themselves, who are in a “chronic state of stress and hyperarousal”, and need to look after their own mental health.

To offer a window outside of their own gated community in Gurugram, Shuchi Sinha encouraged her 12-year-old daughter to volunteer with an NGO to teach Class 3 and 4 students from a basti, maths online. “She had to prepare lessons, and initially she was intimidated by it. Later, she would make animations, stories, write a script. The children also picked up. I saw her blossom through it. It made her less complaining, more responsible,” she says.

Ms. Sinha’s fear now is the next wave — she’s scared it will come for the kids. “It’s like being in the path of an oncoming lorry but not able to get off the path.”

In an uncertain future, daily life can be about listening, collaborating, and some amount of negotiating. Mostly, it is about the ability to share spaces, thoughts, even feelings with children, without scaring them with the sometimes gory details.

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