The pandemic has been tough on everyone. The isolation, the restrictions on our movement, fear and anxiety over COVID-19, uncertainty over school and work. All these weigh heavily on many minds, but we don’t often think about how difficult these things are for children, like our five-year-old son, Lucas.
In the past two years, we’ve moved house twice. For the past two years, Lucas has been going to school online, instead of seeing friends and classmates face to face. We have all been home, venturing outside only if the trip is necessary or carefully planned. Even trips to the village park and playground have been so limited. We haven’t seen family or friends, gone out for random coffee or meet-ups or reunions. Worse, my husband’s father passed away, and it’s been so hard on our son. The new year didn’t start out so well either: our whole family caught COVID-19, and soon after I recovered, I had to leave Manila for work.
To say that things have been difficult is an understatement. But it was worrying to see how difficult things were for our son.
One of the first things we noticed was his discomfort around new people. In the past Lucas had been quick to feel comfortable around new kids, even new adults, talking their ears off and playing within minutes of meeting them. But more recently we noticed his reluctance to talk to strangers, to interact with anybody new. For someone who used to be warm, friendly, and outgoing, we found this incredibly sad and a little worrisome.
We also noticed that more and more often, he said, “I miss big school,” or that he missed his grandmother and his uncle, or even other close friends we’d visited or video called during the pandemic. After a visit, it would be so hard to say goodbye. Lucas would cry, sometimes scream, saying, “I don’t want to go home!”
One of the more distressing things was how resistant he was to change, or the unexpected. In December, when my father-in-law was sick, we hired a caregiver, and Lucas was so angry, crying and saying that she should go away, that we would take care of his grandfather. At school, Lucas would be upset if there was anything new, like a dance or song or exercise, and sometimes this led to a crying fit with screaming. If we went somewhere, and things did not happen as he expected, the discomfort was written all over his face.
Perhaps most troubling was how often he would cry and scream when he did not get what he want, or when he did not want to do what we asked him to. We would have screaming matches, and all of us would be upset. He would be so angry that he would kick, and he would scream so loudly that our ears would hurt. He would cry so much that he would hyperventilate. At one point, these meltdowns were happening daily.
It was so frustrating, and upsetting. I feared that it was our fault, allowing him too much YouTube and video games. I was worried we indulged him too much, then overcompensated by being too harsh when he threw a tantrum. I lost count of how many times we threatened to delete all his games, to lock up his tablet or his Nintendo Switch, to ban him from watching YouTube.
It was like his feelings were so big, and he didn’t know what to do with them, so he would just cry and scream. I thought we were horrible parents.
For a few weeks, I thought about seeking the help of a child psychologist. I’d been thinking about it since my father-in-law passed away in December, and I thought a session might help him with his grief. But these meltdowns made it seem like a much more urgent need.
I turned to a trusted mental health clinic, and inquired about the availability of a child psychologist, how the session would work, and how much it would cost. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but we wanted to help Lucas figure out how to manage his feelings, and we needed to know what we could do about his meltdowns.
The doctor met with us via video call. She asked why we wanted to seek her help, and I told her everything – including the fact that I was also diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and that I was worried Lucas would have the same. My husband told her what Lucas was like in school, how competitive he was, how quickly he would answer. We showed her his drawings.
Soon she asked if she could talk to Lucas. He was grumpy and reticent at first, but soon enough he was his usual cheerful and talkative self, yakking away and making jokes and talking in different voices. He told her he missed his grandfather all the time. He told her about school. He told her about my mother and my brother. She seemed amused by his stories, and he was enjoying the conversation so much that he got a book to read to her.
The session was only supposed to last for an hour and a half, but we were talking to the doctor for nearly two hours. We were so relieved when she said that she had no diagnosis – she found nothing to indicate anxiety or depression, or any sort of condition, and certainly nothing that would merit medication or further counseling. She only advised balance: more offline activities, outdoor activities if possible, more breaks from screens, more dynamic and involved interaction with me and my husband. She reminded us that the pandemic hit everyone hard, but children most especially. She pointed out that for all of us, screens had become our lifeline, for work, school, and entertainment, and while it was necessary, it was also harmful and needed to be balanced with other things, other sources of information and joy. She reminded us to talk to Lucas about his grief, to remind him of happy memories so that thinking about his grandfather would not make him sad, to let him talk if he ever brought up his pain.
After that session, I shed a few tears of relief. I had been so afraid that we had made horrible mistakes, that the past two years had traumatized Lucas, that the damage was irreparable, but as usual I was catastrophizing and things weren’t as bad as I feared.
The doctors told us that things wouldn’t improve overnight, and it’s something I hold on to. Because it runs in the family, there’s every chance that mental health issues will trouble Lucas later in life. But I think what matters is that we’re always alert to his thoughts and feelings, and how he manages them, and that we’re always willing to seek professional help. I don’t know if we’ll need another session anytime soon, but for now, we’re trying our best. – Rappler.com
Regina Layug Rosero is a writer working for an international NGO. She is also a wife, mother, plantita, and fitness freak.