The ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the associated precautionary measures and lockdown have had a significantly negative effect on mental health and well-being of people around the world. None more so than children, one of the most vulnerable segments of society, who are suffering deep-seated mental impacts. They are spending more time at home with fewer opportunities to mingle with friends or in school, there is also less opportunity for youngsters to get out and exercise or play again.
“My daughter would have grown up in a healthier and more proper way if there were no curfew,” Amira Adellatif, a mother to a 1.5-year-old child, told Daily News Egypt.
She said that her baby daughter is at a growth and development phase where being stuck at home all the time is extremely unhelpful in terms of developing new skills. It is particularly hard as her little one is still too young to take part in certain home activities such as colouring or playing puzzles.
Before the curfew was put in place, Abdellatif used to take her baby outside to play in a park or club with other kids.
“Now, I cannot take her to any open area or kids’ area where she can expend her energy and socialise with other kids. My baby needs to see people, learn about the world around her,” she said.
Abdellatif added that her baby is not leaning any new skills, as she is not playing with anything beneficial at home. She is also getting bored of playing with her toys all the time, even if she got new ones.
The mother noted that her daughter is now wasting time on “useless stuff” at home, and that she has started watching cartoons on YouTube and TV. Abdellatif is afraid that her child will get use to such electronics as long as they are stuck at home.
“My baby started to seem bored. Sometimes I observe her roaming around at home without entering a specific room, or she keeps crying,” the mother said. “Also, she is suffering from poor sleep, because she has energy that she wants to expend but she cannot.”
“When we open the house door to go out, she dances with happiness. I try to take her for walks as much as I can, so she can feel a little bit better,” the mother added.
My child always asks “why are we at home?”
Nehal Monier, mother to a six-year-old boy, faces the same problem. She said, “My child is always bored, his psychological state is bad. Since he was six months, he used to go to a nursery, he was mostly spending his time outside the home, but now he cannot go anywhere.”
Monier said that her son used to spend a large part of his day outside the home, whether in school, going to the mall, visiting family, playing with friends, or having lunch at a restaurant with his parents.
She added, “Our house is overlooking the front of his favourite mall, and whenever we pass by the mall, he keeps asking why we don’t go, why we are unable to have lunch in our favourite restaurant. He never stops asking about what happened and why he is at home all the time.”
Monier said that she tried to talk to her son about the current situation, but he is still too young to be able to comprehend the full extent of the situation.
“We started recently to go out and roam around in the car wearing our masks and having sanitizers with us. We have only met people a few times. I took him to visit my sister, when my son was really down. She has two children, and they are totally isolated like my kid,” Monier said.
She has created a daily schedule for her son, which includes sleeping and waking up times to avoid sleeping disorder.
“He studies in the early morning. Using a board, I explain his lessons to him as if he is at school, and watch videos by his teacher, who he misses so much,” she said.
She added that, in the middle of the day, she leaves him to study on his own whilst she does her job from home, before returning to play with him.
“We can do colouring, baking, and play puzzles,” she said, adding, “I got him Printable play money to teach him how to count money. I am trying to discover all the hidden skills in my child.”
“I cannot take his mobile!”
Another mother, who requested anonymity, said before the curfew, her 13-year-old son used to return from school at 16:00, and he used to go to the club for basketball practice five days a week. As he is in the second grade at preparatory school, he would then spend the rest of his day finishing his homework or other activities.
She added that, during the weekend, they used to have time with the extended family, go to lunch or to the club, or finish some errands.
“We used to do a lot of activities outside the home,” the mother said. “It meant that my child’s energy was distributed among school, sports, and other social activities.”
The mother added that her son have online school sessions from 9:30 to 14:00, spending less time with his teachers. This compares to when he was present in school, where he was busy from 7:00 to 16:00. He has now completed the educational year, and has submitted group projects in coordination with the school.
She added that, despite having previously regulated his access to and use of electronics, this has now gone out the window with the lockdown and curfew. After her son had finished his online school lessons, he would spend the rest of the day playing with electronics, as he cannot meet up with friends or go to a club.
“He plays games on laptop, mobile, or playstation. At this age, the child is no longer interested in colouring or puzzles,” she said. “Unfortunately, all his time is wasted in using electronics. This is not a good thing and not beneficial, especially as now he stays up late every day, and his sleeping time has been affected. But using electronics is the only thing that gives him fun as he can go online with his friends. I cannot stop him, as it is the only thing that entertains him at the moment.”
“I used to put limits for online games and socialising during the school days, as it was not allowed all the time,” the mother said. “My child is too bored, despite using electronics. Spending all the time at home is difficult, and he misses his friends, break times, and playing football with his mates. He now almost never goes out.”
“Sometimes, I take him for a car ride, but he never liked the idea and keeps on playing on his mobile. I ask him to leave the mobile and enjoy the time with me, talking and listening to music but he disagrees, seeing that there is no fun doing this,” she added.
She noted that she is trying to improve his skills at home. “Sometimes, I pressure him to read a book with me or exercise at home.”
The child has become afraid of the coronavirus, and rejects his father’s idea when he suggests visiting anyone of the extended family, the mother said.
The mother noted, however, that when the country opens up and life returns to a semblance of normality, she is unsure how far she can let down her guard. At the same time, however, she recognises the negative aspects of the curfew, especially staying at home and the lower exposure to fresh air and sun.
Mothers should take the initiative
The curfew has impacted children in different ways according to their age. There were those children who already had a well-established pre-lockdown social life, going to nursery or school, going to different activities outside the home, meeting family and friends.
However, according to Child Psychiatrist Marwa Helmy, with this suddenly stopping, youngsters have been particularly affected, with the situation worse for children who have developmental issues.
Helmy said that the normal daily routine for children which only focused on wasting time outside, showed that most of them have no special skills or talents. This is the main reason for their boredom and psychological problems during the curfew. She urged that the issue is due to a parental dependency on schools and nurseries without helping their kids to discover their special talents.
“The children were really busy at nursery, school, private lessons, and meeting friends and family, and once they got stuck at home, they found themselves not knowing what to do,” the psychiatrist said.
The absence of teachers is another issue, with mothers now having to take the initiative and find alternatives.
“This is the perfect opportunity to teach them new skills, just like what they used to do in school or nurseries,” Helmy suggested.
She noted that many mothers depend on online games and YouTube cartoons to keep their children entertained. This does mean, however, that they suffer environmental deprivation and ongoing loneliness.
“Mothers should prepare for them several distinguished activities at home, IQ games, get some sports tools so they can practice at home, and work on their skills as much as they can to avoid harms of electronics,” she also suggested.
My child needs to interact with people
Sarah Tarek, mother of a 4-year-old boy, said, “My biggest problem is that I am unable to tell my child why we are at home, why we do not go out like we used to.”
She cannot explain to her son what is the coronavirus, and why he cannot go out, as her little one is still too young to really understand.
“So far, no serious mental issues have happened to my kid. He just needs to interact with others his age,” Tarek said. “Recently, my son started to seem bored, but not depressed. He doesn’t understand what is happening and no matter how much you try to tell him, he can never get the idea of the virus.”
The best she can do, given the circumstances, is to reassure him that everything will work out and that the coronavirus will come to an end and they will go out again and meet up with friends.
Tarek added, “He is an only child, so he misses having kids around. Since March, we have not gone out. I will not put him or myself at risk until a vaccine comes out. It is hard to control the child form touching his mouth or eyes.”
She added that, since the curfew, her son has stopped going to nursery, which has instead run online classes for half an hour a day, three times a week. And just as his daily routine has changed, Tarek noted, his sleep times have also changed.
About her child’s daily routine, she said, “We can do some activities, play in the garden at my house, go for a walk, or try to do anything new together that distracts him from the reality. I only take him for a car ride, walk in the park, but I will not take him to any kids’ area in malls anytime soon.”
In Tarek’s view, the only privilege in the current situation is that her child is getting to spend more time with the family.
Teenagers are more sensitive
The impacts of the curfew and lockdown aren’t just less time spent outside or increased boredom. As Ivon Magdy, an Arabic language teacher who has two teenage girls, told Daily News Egypt, the curfew has made her daughters more sensitive and nervous. The daughters are 15 and 17 years old.
In pre-coronavirus days, her daughters would go to school, to church for activities, or go for outings with friends. Such were their busy schedules, Magdy said, noting that she barely got to spend any time with them.
She explained that at the beginning of the curfew, her daughters were not satisfied. Instead, they rejected the idea of a curfew, as they believed that it is still normal to go out in open areas or visit friends.
“We took them out one day to show them that everything is closed, which allowed them to begin admitting to themselves that it is risky,” Magdy said. “They also became worried about their father who has chronic diseases.”
The online learning put into place by schools across Egypt also was not the best thing, Magdy said. After the school year finished, her daughters started to feel depressed and bored, to the extent that it started to affect her as well.
”We used to talk to each other about how we feel, but the girls’ behaviours changed, even ours [the parents] did. They now get nervous easily and have become more sensitive, aside from also suffering sleeping disorder.”
Despite the circumstances, Magdy and her husband feel they can handle the situation. As she is a teacher and her husband is a sociologist, she feels they can make the right compromises where necessary to maintain as much balance as necessary.
“My younger child hasn’t gone out, but the elder daughter went out with her friends three times,” Magdy said. “In her age, you are not the decision maker alone, they will insist also on doing what they want.”
Madgy added, “We heard that sports will be back, and I know my daughter will fight to return to practice again. I don’t know what I will do at that time, and I understand that she can practice while wearing a face mask.”
“The only privilege [under the curfew] is that we have become closer to each other, and started talking to each other more often. My daughters started to love their home and are spending more time with us [the parents].”
She added that, since they stopped going out so much, they have started spending less money.
“I wish they are going to continue with this after the virus ends, and have only a few outings contrary to before,” Magdy said.
She noted that she also hopes they stop ordering fast food as they used to, instead enjoying home-cooked food together.