Deepika: ‘How do you adjust to an ever changing situation where the ‘new normal’ is indefinite uncertainty?’ – this question was at the core of an article I recently came across on the pandemic and its effect on adults. And it seemed to echo something that’s been on our mind here at The CuroCity Collective. A pandemic is different from other natural disasters in some ways. For one thing, it unfolds over a much longer period of time and so as the question puts it, has the quality of being ‘indefinite’ and full of ‘uncertainty’.
In our last episode we spoke to children and their parents to get a glimpse of what was going on with them and how they were finding ways to cope with this situation. This little glimpse was so full of insight, that we couldn’t help wanting to broaden it further.
So we decided to reach out to Jehanzeb Baldiwala, Director-Mental Health Services at Ummeed Child Development Centre, an NGO in Mumbai. Jehanzeb has been working with children on mental health issues for close to two decades, and after a few failed attempts to set up some time to talk courtesy the Mumbai rain, we finally had a chance to converse.
Jehanzeb: So I’m Jehanzeb and I work as a mental health worker. I’m with an organization called Ummeed Child Development Center, and I’ve been consulting here for close to 17 years now. I work as a part of the mental health team and my work includes consulting with children and families, particularly children and families experiencing disabilities.
Deepika: Founded in 2001, Ummeed has been working in the areas of supporting children and their families through a clinical service they run, they also train community workers and professions and conduct research, advocacy and awareness in child development.
The approach they take is along the lines of what we’ve discussed in our earlier conversations on mental health and disability – it emphasises the relevance of social contexts and environments in shaping the experiences of children.
Jehanzeb: I’m aligned to what we refer to as narrative ideas and practices, and basically sort of to highlight multiple things about that way of working with people but two things that I’d like to bring up today— one is that we really locate sort of problems and concerns and difficulties that people are experiencing in a context that they’re living in. We don’t believe that people are their problems and that problems really exist in systems, you know in context and not inside of people, and that also people are always responding and that they have a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge and skills about living and managing in their context. And so our role becomes sort of working alongside people and discovering more about how the problem is operating and also discovering more about their ways of responding, and the skills and knowledge that they might already be using, and maybe collaboratively coming up with, you know, more ideas together.
Deepika: Considering this approach and the times we’re living in, Ummeed has already been actively working with children and their families providing them critical support through this period of the pandemic.
So I had to ask Jehanzeb, as a practitioner in the field of mental health, what she had been hearing and seeing in terms of how children were responding to this ‘new normal’.
Jehanzeb: Right now I think the sort of difficulties, concerns or the kind of stories we’re hearing are a lot around adjusting to you know new sort of or a different way of being, a lot of fear and anxiety, of course and a lot of people experiencing a sense of being low, being disconnected, isolated apart from of course, a lot of very real problems of you know, worry about contagion, worry about monetary, financial concerns that families are experiencing.
Deepika: She emphasised how there was of course a wide variance in the responses of children based on their circumstances. While a small population was happier and more comfortable being at home in the constant presence of their family members, others were unhappy with this unnaturally long confinement. Yet the one thing common to all was that with the coming of the pandemic, their lives have been massively disrupted.
Jehanzeb took us through what she had been observing through the course of the last few months.
Jehanzeb: I think what has happened is that across the board and across age groups, there’s a disruption in routine. I think there’s a huge sense of unpredictability, right? Because there’s a feeling of just not knowing. So for a lot of the young people there’s a grappling with like when are things gonna become okay, which I found initially. There was an intense, you know feeling of wanting to you know, just tell yourself that it’s going to be a month or two months or you know, and now I see more and more people kind of reaching a space where they’re feeling like with this is never ending.
I think it’s slowly slipping more into sort of this sense of not being able to control what’s happening to you or, you know, feeling a sense of…I don’t want to use the word hopelessness because its a very big word but maybe a sense of really not knowing when this is going to end and not not feeling like you’re not feeling hopeful of it getting back to their life as it was earlier. I think for many families in the mental health space we’ve been hearing of how there’s also an increase in a lot of the violence that’s happening in the homes so that’s also affected children considerably.
So I think it’s been very varied, I think is what I’m trying to say, depending on so much of a function of you know, what the financial state of the family is, what their physical condition is, you know in terms of what kind of a house or living space they have and how many people in it, you know, what’s what’s their daily routine or how much are they sort of dependent or sort of you know, how much did they, you know their sense of security come from interacting maybe with a teacher or a you know, an after school program that they might have been part of.
Deepika: What is important to acknowledge though is that experts are growing increasingly concerned about the potential long-term effects of this pandemic on children’s health and psychological development.
Considering this wide variety of responses that Jehanzeb was referring to, I had to ask if there was a way parents or other care-givers could keep an eye out on how children are doing – especially as many children aren’t necessarily verbal about how they’re feeling. What are signs to look out for that indicate a child is having a difficult time coping?
Jehanzeb: I guess sleep, appetite, you know those things I would look out for, but also if you’re finding like change in emotional responses like the child growing very quiet or you know outbursts. Like everybody’s a little more irritable and those things but I think if you’re seeing it consistently over a period of time that the child is, you know, expressing irritability or is crying a lot, you know, but then I would be a little bit sort of and when I’m saying concerned, what I would do is make sure that I address it with the young person to ask them how they’re feeling.
Deepika: Studies are only beginning to trickle in regarding how children might be responding to the pandemic. A recently reported study examined the emotional impact of the quarantine on children and adolescents from Italy and Spain, two of the most affected countries by COVID-19. It found that 85.7% of the parents perceived changes in their children’s emotional state and behaviours during the quarantine. The most frequent symptoms reported were difficulty concentrating, boredom, irritability, restlessness, nervousness, feelings of loneliness, uneasiness and worries.
Jehanzeb emphasised how this could be addressed actively by ensuring that the child is provided with a safe and conversational environment where they can bring up and express how they’re feeling or ask questions that might be troubling them.
Jehanzeb: Parents obviously know their children best, so you know, not ignoring and probably just making sure that the conversation spaces are open and I think what great starting point is always sharing sort of what it’s be feeling like for you and that can also be an opening but also sometimes like if it’s not the parents themselves, if there’s someone closer in age like a cousin or you know, you could even have them connect or reach out as well and have those conversations with young people.
Deepika: Another arena which could help children feel more secure she said was that of creating familiar routines, loosely regulated environments to give children a sense of how their day was looking.
Jehanzeb: So I’ve been hearing a lot about how young people, you know, sleep routines I think are you know really different now. And this would be I think more in you know, the age group probably 12-13 now because I think when they are younger that that they are still sort of reliant on parents to regulate their routine. And if parents can kind of keep, you know, even if it’s a new routine, but keep a sense of routine and keep a sense of you know, food-time and playtime and bedtime and whatever then it sort of still not so disruptive for them.
Deepika: She pointed out though that she’s been observing a difference in responses across age groups – and the difference between younger children and teenagers. In the case of teenagers, for instance, they’d begun to self regulate their time in some ways and had schedules with different components that parents alone were finding difficult to fill in. Adolescents, for example, seemed to miss their peers much more.
Jehanzeb: They rely on their peers so much for their sense of community. I think that you know that isolation has made them feel very lonely in so many ways. A lot of them now developing a lot of self-doubt that’s another thing I’m hearing a lot in young people, questioning themselves a lot of you know, what things are, and then I think there’s an overload of internet and screen time and you know, so I think that brings with it, you know.
Deepika: This was also an outcome of the Spain and Italy study which showed that ‘children of both countries used monitors more frequently, spent less time doing physical activity, and slept more hours during the quarantine’.
And this high intake of online content also points to the issue of information overload and the intake of negative news during this times. In our last episode too we discussed how talking to children about the pandemic alongside managing the information that they receive and how they process it, is important to consider.
Jehanzeb gave us some pointers on how this conversation can be navigated.
Jehanzeb: Obviously, what you would say and how you would, share the information would have to depend. You know more than age group, the way, because parents know their children best, right, so how much information they feel would be useful for the child, like drawing that line of where the child is going to be able to process this in a way that makes them feel in control, and where is it going to become too much information and make them feel helpless or out of control. So I think that’s something I would suggest to put some thought into, you know, obviously framing it in a way that it makes sense.
So, I think the other thing I would say is to not have a single conversation. Don’t make it an event where it’s one big conversation, but to do it in little parts so children have time to think about it, if they have questions to open up space for that I think, over a period of time. And to you know, share how you are feeling about it and what’s helped you.
Sharing your own experiences gives people permission, you know to share if something is not okay. So if you had a bad day or if you are feeling overly anxious on a particular day, I think sometimes you know sharing it obviously in a way not to make the child feel that you’ve lost control, but also providing that as an opening of you know, does that happen to you sometimes? So what’s it been like for you all these days? You know, if it’s a good starting point.
Deepika: A New York Times article I came across on this subject had a trauma expert sharing how one of the important things to learn and remember in terms of being mitigative for children through the pandemic is that: ‘The way that adults talk about the pandemic is how kids will internalize it: Parents’ tone can model hope and calm, instead of stress and anxiety. (…) parents’ views and voices play a critical role in mitigating long-term negative effects in kids.’
Yet even as we bring our attention to this, Jehanzeb pointed out the need to also acknowledge that the ‘new normal’ is a reality for everyone involved – adults included, that these changed circumstances imply that we must change how we approach our collective lives for a bit.
Jehanzeb: One of the things that I think is helpful overall is for all of us to just lower our expectations—from ourselves from our kids from our schools, you know, from our teachers because there is a pandemic right, and so for us to pretend like, you know, we can all just keep racing on and you know, being whatever productive is and you know, continuing these things, it’s a little ridiculous.
So I think you know we need to, we really to because you hear parents talking about ‘oh, how this is a great time for the young person to you know, pick up a new hobby start doing a computer class’. I really, you know, just let them be, I think. Finding spaces of leisure together as a family, you know, I think those things or in any other space where you can connect them to another kid and they can do some games or I don’t know whatever it is that’s possible. If there’s possibility of physical exercise or just stepping out in a safe way. Doing some of those things rather than focusing on, you know acquiring a new skill.
Deepika: This she reiterated was advice that was equally applicable to the parents as for the children. In order to be better parents, having more realistic expectations of ourselves and taking rest or timeouts is important.
Jehanzeb: I think maybe finding leisure spaces and finding spaces, you know where you can just take out the little bit of time wherever possible to do something that you enjoy, you know, finding a space to connect maybe with whoever it is that you would feel you would be nourished by or that you would feel, you know, happy to be with.
And some little things, doing just little things for yourself like being able to you know, maybe just stand and have a cup of tea or coffee five minutes in the balcony or maybe listen to your favorite song while you’re cooking or even something that you that would make you feel a little sense of happiness for that day or a little sense of hopefulness. I think for that day, I think would be great if people could.
Deepika: In our previous episode, we heard from a bunch of parents on strategies that they were adopting that have helped them and their children cope better.
In the conversation that spilled outside of the podcast we had parents tell us how they had experimented with a wide variety of things within the home – from playing games as a family, learning things together like cooking and baking, rediscovering their old love for reading and playing chess, exploring ideas and creative projects that follow everyday curiosities – and doing all this with no agenda or outcome in mind, doing them with a spirit of play.
Jehanzeb: One of the things we’ve been doing at Ummeed I think has been we’ve been having these what we call Fun Clubs, like leisure spaces, where children just get together and like we play games and we do things like that with them or just for them to you know, be with each other, and chill out and do some fun things. We used to do it physically at the center, but now of course because it’s online we’ve still continued to do that and more recently we’ve started doing one for caregivers as well because a lot of times our families, especially right because they are caregivers of children with disabilities, have a huge sense of you know isolation and one of the things they look forward to when they come to the center is meeting another parent, you know, another caregiver. So we started this Leisure groups for them as well. So I think finding these kind of spaces, I know a lot of people who founded book clubs or you know, things like that also, where they get some kind of a sense of shared interest and a sense of community, so I guess looking for some those kind of things in societies if it’s possible, you know to do something.
I’ve heard some of my parents talk about how like even fine motor like just using the hands and so they mix up like the different grains and they give it to the young person and so the young person is just sorting and sifting and separating the three or four grains, you know. So just I think parents are finding ways to engage like even in the kitchen while the young person is, you know, while you’re cooking you have this person beside you, you can get them to do something like that.
if there’s a show or something that everybody can watch together or you know, it can be a way to again, you know, do two things. I think somewhere letting the young person feel like they have some choices in the matter also.
Deepika: Yet even as we begin to find ways to give back our children a sense of community and connection – a major issue is simply the number of roles the parents themselves are currently playing. Many have had to double down as teachers, look after young children throughout the day, no external help meant they were also managing all the housework of cleaning and cooking alongside trying to maintain their jobs. This has meant an enormous strain on the limited resources of the adults themselves.
Jehanzeb shared how as a strategy some families are building pods or bubbles within which a few families isolate together in order to overcome some of these constraints of social distancing.
Jehanzeb: So I know a lot of families who’ve, you know, relented to like they’re calling it like the bubble. So the bubble of the family and one other family and they’re allowing the kids, you know, to connect. Like they meet or whatever, physically because you know, but like maybe just one other kid or some, you know, some buildings have these options of kids going down to play at different times.
Deepika: This might be an effective strategy for the long term wellbeing of the family as it can help with: Improving the pool of energies and resources, provide childcare, improve socialization for children and families and support children and adults who need more educational or care assistance.
She added how social connection beyond the immediate family could also be facilitated through the wise use of technology, for those who might not be able to avail the idea of pod parenting.
Jehanzeb: I have a son, he’s 11 and one of the things they’ve been doing is interesting because he seems okay. He’s not really asked to meet any friends or anything, but then they had this zoom party that they organized and 4-5 of them. So we had planned, you know, I said instead of just meeting and hanging out about your plans some games and things like that. So they did that and I had a really nice time so, you know, they decided to do that once in a month. So having small things like that I think I’ve been helpful. Being able to celebrate may be a festival, or a birthday, even if it’s on zoom, you know, on a video call or something like that, like WhatsApp for a lot of people have used that as a way to feel connected.
Deepika: Social isolation and loneliness, has in the last decade been emerging as a serious public health concern amongst both the young and the old. And that’s because of its strong connection with cardiovascular, autoimmune, neurocognitive, and mental health problems. Social connection, research seems to be indicating, is essential to our well-being.
At a time when social distancing has physically isolated us from each other, my conversation with Jehanzeb ended with her pointing to the profound and active need to creatively address and rebuild connection in our lives.
Jehanzeb: So I think you know, resilience comes from you know, connection. It comes from a sense of you know, feeling like you can manage a situation, right, like you have the executive functions or you have the ability or the skills or the ways or means to solve a problem like and then that feeling of hopefulness. So I think it would be thinking of you know ways that you could help your children to find probably or appreciate little things that are going okay in the day, or little things that they can look forward to that would be helpful. Trying to see that they are connected or you know, reassured of the safety of those who are most near and dear and close to them. And then you know, I think being open to brainstorming together and figuring out if something is not going okay, like if school is feeling challenging or even in their day-to-day things, right? Like if they’re really missing play, even being sort of able to sit with them and try to figure those things out so that they feel more in control of something is not going okay. I think for all of us right just being available to each other and the sense of we will figure this out together and ‘I may not have all the answers but together we could probably figure out something that will be kind of okay’, um having being able to communicate that.
Deepika: These are strange and trying times for all of us. The secondary psycho-socio-economic effects of the pandemic tell us that its repercussions and ripples shall be felt far beyond the immediate illness itself and for the many years to come.
It is hence vital that we find the means to help children navigate this rough terrain and emerge with greater resilience. It is no easy ask of course, yet in some ways it is also an opportunity to find those deep spaces of gratitude and beauty within us. Families have hardly ever been thrown together, so close and continuously for such a long stretch of time in any other situation and maybe like Divya a parent from our previous episode mentioned – it is an opportunity to be with and know our children for the people they are now and become more conscious of what we bring to moulding the adults they will be.
I leave you with the poem I recently came across called ‘Good Bones’ by the poet Maggie Smith which I felt resonated with this bittersweet moment.
Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Outro: In the upcoming month we are closing season 1 of The Curio-city Collective Podcast. So instead of exploring new arenas of city-life, we spend the month reflecting on what we’ve been hearing and learning about well-being and transformative change and action through this season of conversations! So stay tuned for September!
If you are new to the podcast you can look through our previous episodes at www.thecuriocitycollective.org or find us on any podcast app of your choice!
Credits: This episode was made with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and Arpita Joshi and was produced by The Bangalore Recording Company