The world has suddenly shifted into disruption and uncertainty, and children’s lives are shifting with it. What does Covid-19 mean for children?
I study children’s experiences of health and illness, and for my doctoral research I spent a year in an Auckland school listening to children about the rheumatic fever (RF) epidemic. Here’s what their perspectives can tell us about how to support children now.
First, how do we, as a society, view children? We tend to see children as passive recipients of adult actions. We can assume if we don’t tell children things, they won’t know. And if they don’t know, we’re protecting them. If we don’t tell them, they can’t be scared or worry. And we overlook what children do, assuming their actions don’t matter.
But children don’t live in a vacuum. They watch what you’re watching. They listen to what adults are saying, while pretending not to hear. They talk to peers at school. The children I worked with saw RF campaigns in bus shelters and on TV, and from these pieced together their own understanding of how RF works. Children recited the campaign messages verbatim. Because those messages were simplified, they filled in the gaps with their own experiences.
When kids I worked with had a sore throat from ‘talking too much,’ they got scared they were going to die from RF. They thought testing positive for strep throat meant they had RF. They thought RF much more common and deadly than the epidemiological data says, because no-one took the time to ask for their perspectives and clarify what we mean by ‘sore throat’ or talk through what the real risks are.
Just like adults, children take their scraps of knowledge and build understandings with them. And then children use those understandings to guide their actions. They start doing things they think will help them or their loved ones survive. They do things so they don’t feel so helpless.
The kids I worked with started going to the clinic for swabs, a lot, because they thought they were dying. Some became hypervigilant, while some hid their sore throats because they were scared. So when we don’t take the time to listen to children, we don’t hear their perspectives, and then we don’t understand their actions. We think children are silly and irrational.
Children also feel vulnerable. In our society, even older children depend on caregivers for social survival. If something happens to a parent, they often don’t know what will happen to them, where they’ll go, who they’ll live with, or how they’ll be treated.
Here’s a real conversation among kids I worked with:
“If you’re young, and your mum and dad die, who would you live with?”
“Yeah your grandparents.”
“Or your brother and sister if you have them. If they’re older.”
(Children in my research talked about death a LOT. Children are pretty new to the world, so they’re still calibrating their sense of relative risk. Death is a big deal to kids, especially when we don’t talk to them about it and they have to figure out what it means with friends).
So even if children are hearing that kids aren’t getting coronavirus as bad, they can be very scared for themselves. They love and want to protect their family. They will worry if they don’t see their family protecting themselves. They may feel helpless.
This virus also won’t impact all children equally. Our legacy of colonisation and systemic racism means Māori and Pacific kaumātua have shorter life expectancies, more chronic illnesses, and less access to healthcare. Without equitable pandemic strategies, these whānau will be affected by more severe illness and more likely to suffer deaths. Travel restrictions and social distancing may mean they cannot grieve those deaths according to tikanga. These children will feel the vulnerability and mamae of this time in different ways.
When children feel vulnerable, they want and need to give care, in the ways they know how. Adults may not recognise their care, and they may think children shouldn’t have to care, but giving care is important to children. When her chronically ill mother would groan in pain, 10-year-old Mila would tell her to lie back down, and do the chore herself. She would stand in the doorway when her parents were fighting, to protect her mother with her presence. She came to the clinic, even when she didn’t have a sore throat, so her mother didn’t have to worry about her. Caring for her mother helped Mila feel safe.
Finally, children will pick up on your worry. Even if you try to hide it, they will see you’re trying to hide it, and will want to help you with that. So they will act like they don’t see your worry. This is called mutual pretense.
So what can we do? Talk to children, not at children, and most importantly, listen. Listen to what they say in words, but also what they don’t say. Listen for what they say non-verbally, through body language, play, drawing, or silence.
Hear children’s thoughts and feelings. Like adults, children will have a range of feelings and responses. Some may be fearful or anxious, but others may be annoyed, stressed, frustrated, guilty, or bored. All feelings are okay. Feelings may change, and that’s okay. Validate the feelings. Share your feelings, and model how we manage those feelings. Invite them to write about or draw their feelings. (Send drawings here). Draw yours, alongside them. Clarify understandings. (Siouxsie Wiles has a great resource for sharing pandemic information with children). Google things together. Help children put things in perspective.
Importantly, name the things you are doing to protect yourself and them, and help children identify the things they can do to protect themselves and their family. We all feel less helpless when we have something we can do, even if it’s small or symbolic.
Help children find ways to give care. They can wash their hands. They can remind others to wash their hands. They can care for or entertain siblings at home. They can help clean. They can create activities for the family. They can make drawings or cards for those who are sick.
Children can help by giving you time to rest, and they can take time for themselves to rest. They can tell you what they need to feel safe. They can do happy things to care for themselves for them and for you.
Finally, recognise and value children’s contributions, and tell them their care is important. Children feel more secure when they feel valued and needed by their families. Children feel safer when their actions matter. Let children care.