More empathy needed for children as they battle the COVID-19 havoc

Amid the second COVID wave, many children who have lost their parents are becoming all the more vulnerable and lonely, and need urgent attention and care.
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The double mutant strain of SARS CoV-2 virus played havoc across India. As per data released by Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and John Hopkins University, India reported over 27,000 deaths in the week of May 3-9, an increase of over 3,500 deaths from its previous week of 23,781 fatalities, with the weekly toll crossing a whopping 25,000 deaths for the first time.

Many of these victims are parents, and are leaving their children in shock, trauma, and grief. The media is flooded with reports pouring in from all corners of the country – Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, or Kolkata – where children lost one or both of their parents to COVID-19, and have nowhere to go or no one to take care of them. This has also led to wide circulation of casual adoption requests flooding various social media platforms.

However, when we talk about children in distress because of parental loss, the narrative also includes children who are away from primary caregivers or with a single parent/relatives because their parent/s are struggling for life in hospitals – a traumatic situation where such children discover themselves all exposed to multiple risks and the sea of emotions rushing in amid such a crisis.

For many children, death of parent/s comes with expectation to shoulder the deteriorating economic status of the family by taking on responsibilities or deciphering ways to generate income for livelihood. This not only pushes and exposes children to child labour, but also adds to increased burden on the grieving child.

At a time when continuous care and support would have been crucial, chances are that the pressure of meeting financial woes will only detach them from their friends/family, thus only adversely impacting the mental trauma of the bereaved children.

In cases where the child in a nuclear family loses both her parents and ends up in a children’s home, the situation gets more tough and lonely. In such cases, the child not only lose her primary caregivers but also suddenly lands up in a situation which is unfamiliar, unfriendly, and often hostile.

Therefore, now, it is more crucial than ever to focus, be kind, and offer strength to these children in distress. It is key to understand that everyone grieves and mourns differently.

Children are no exception, and when a family member dies or is suffering, children react differently from adults. Children should be allowed time to process emotions and to express feelings about their loss and grief in their own way.

At Child Rights and you - CRY, we recognise that children are entitled to receive not only protection and guidance in such situations, but should also have an enabling environment to share, express their thoughts, and take on greater responsibilities to exercise their rights.

Our effort towards building their capacities at whatever life throws at them is beautifully captured in our life skills sessions. These skills help children become aware and express one’s own emotions while being sensitive and empathetic to others’.

At the same time, kids are also taught to keep an eye on the negative emotions. They learn to regulate expression of healthy emotions and prevent unhealthy ones by practicing different techniques of emotional regulation, proactive thinking skills, accepting reality, letting go and forgiveness.

Let’s take a look at few ways that help soothe children in grieve and enable them in dealing with mental trauma and anxiety:

Be patient and all ears to let them tell you how they feel

A child who has lost her parent needs to know that it is acceptable to show emotions and talk about the person who died. Normalising the grieving process is important. It would allow kids to reduce anxieties about the future, through a release of pent-up emotions.

Children can feel a variety of emotions following a parent’s death, including anger and guilt. They need to know that suffering or death of parent/s is not their fault and therefore they should not blame themselves or people who were taking care of the parents during these testing times.

Open communication is a must

It is common for children to show sudden changes in their behaviour; at time they might misbehave too – which shows that they are struggling to cope with the changes following the loss of parent/s.

Building a positive relationship with a child in distress is the key – one where the child slowly becomes comfortable over time and start putting their faith in the people around. Post this, with all kindness and warmth, they should be informed about the fact that a channel of open communication is available for them to share their pain, emotions, or else anything they want to.

With empathy, kindness and determination, effective positive parenting (in case of a remaining parent, care givers, guardian, etc.) can help children adjust after their parent’s death or absence in such trying situations. It reduces the likelihood of the mental illness such as major depression disorder, and promotes better adaptation skills in the bereaved children.

Help children improve coping skills

Active coping strategies are associated with more positive adaptation following the death of one or both parents. The four skills include: (i) Reframing negative self-statements into more positive ones and include optimism, (ii) Making them understand that one cannot control uncontrollable events and helping them identify events that can be controlled, (iii) Focusing on problem solving, and (iv) Extending emotional support to help manage stressful situations.

It is not just on children, but also on us. To help bereaved children gain a sense of efficacy, they can be asked to set goals in practising these skills and can provide specific positive feedback on the progress, which will boost their confidence and bring them some joy.

Children in distress are likely to feel more helpless and believe that they have less control over events. Helping the kids manage this anxiety after losing a parent at a young age can be done by teaching children where their responsibilities lie.

But we should not forget that we are talking about children and as our great grandmothers rightly said, ‘every child has a mind of their own’. Therefore if the above ways/strategies work for one, these may not necessarily work for the other or may need customised approach.

Legal aspects that one should be aware of

However, all these strategies and ways to protect and help the grieving children would go to waste if we are not aware of the legal provisions related to care and adoption of such children. Ensuring that we – and others around us – do not fall prey to rumours / fake news on adoption of children that are doing rounds on social media is extremely crucial or all efforts would likely be reversed.

Taking the legal route, any information relating to distressed children amid the pandemic must be reported to Childline at 1098 or to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR).

Such information can also be reported to the concerned State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR), the District Child Protection Officer (DCPO) or the local Child Welfare Committee (CWC), and the local Police Station. Since children’s mental well-being is paramount to weather the crisis, NCPCR’s tele-counselling number 1800-121-2830 offers psycho-social support to children affected by COVID-19.

Meanwhile, for us – the caregivers and well-wishers of children, having patience is the key to hang in there and tread the road to recovery with children, even though they may not completely do away with the pain of losing parents as they are irreplaceable. However, with warmth, dedicated support, and handholding, children will surely find means to bounce back to life and be happy again.

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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