Far away is the rainbow

Nupur Dhingra Paiva | Updated on November 13, 2020

Shut out: There is a pattern to the forms of distress now shown by children ISTOCK.COM   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

The pandemic has rendered children invisible and shut down a force of nature

* In a parallel universe of people who had homes and screens to disappear into, we again forgot about the children

* When not attended to, the emotional world has a way of making its presence felt

* Children learn more from what they observe and less from what they are told

March 2020 did many things to India. One of those was to make our children invisible. Make them disappear.

During the initial weeks of the lockdown, the focus was on the horror of people leaving cities in droves, along with their children. To the media, they were ‘migrant workers’. This narrative focussed on the economic aspects of the migration but less so on its human and emotional cost — the fact that these were families. Children were walking alongside their parents, uprooted from what was familiar, from schools and local galis, and headed to uncertainty. Mainstream media has not kept up with these children to find out what happened to them. They have all but disappeared from view.

In a parallel universe of people who had homes and screens to disappear into, we again forgot the children. Apart from addressing how not to interrupt the school curriculum, how to keep them occupied, we made most other aspects related to children invisible. Or wished they would be. For almost eight months now, the school corridors and playgrounds have been deserted, the after-school activity schedule blank and celebrations quiet. Have we paused to wonder where all that energy went? The energy that fuels daily learning, play, sport, competition, laughter, friendships, bullying, fist-fights and arguments with peers. As a society we have proven that, mostly, we see our people as capital. We are interested in what resource they will provide — therefore, the young need to be educated, the workers need to work. Our children’s internal worlds become invisible.

Fortunately, when not attended to, the emotional world has a way of making its presence felt. Because our feelings are a force of nature, much like the wind or the rain, pretending they don’t exist, does not work. We cannot expect the sexuality and aggression of youth, which fuels their creativity and desire to change/rebel against the world, to simply quieten down and comply. Distress accumulates, it pushes through and we are forced to notice it, if for no other reason than to make the child be quiet and go back to sleep.

Pre-Covid-19, our small, but effective, child and adolescent mental health team in New Delhi had a steady trickle of one new referral a week. Over the last few months that has turned into a deluge, representing the increasing levels of anguish in families, led by the children.

There is a pattern to the forms of distress: A six-year-old fears earthquakes and is constantly anxious, unwilling to let a parent out of sight. A 12-year-old fears losing loved ones. A nine-year-old is afraid of death, troubled by events in other parts of the world where people have been killed. Many moody, quiet, reclusive 13-year-olds, spending hours on a screen, their world reduced to 13 inches, and supposedly at school, are navigating to websites far, far away. Hyperactive, angry children, unable to hear ‘no’, unable to sit still. Others still, but smoking cannabis and using alcohol or pornographic material and gaming to tranquilise themselves. These are ways in which the internal world makes itself known, otherwise called symptoms — in children, most are behavioural, some are related to mood changes. Some bother the child, others don’t. They usually bother the child’s grown-ups and everyone is looking for a fix (usually online). There isn’t one.

When we shut children indoors, away from peer networks, outlets for creativity and energy, away from learning by fighting, falling, failing — we are shutting down a force of nature. Children from the age of five to puberty are designed to learn and to move. Adolescents are designed to disagree with adults and to bond with peers. When this development design is interrupted, one of two things can happen. The urge can either be to shut down and adapt or push back. A 10-year-old may not be able to come and say, “I am aware that it is not possible to meet my friends but I really miss them and I miss playing in the park” — they may go quiet and lose their appetite or be stuck to a device, gaming. Or wake up with nightmares. Or may be agitated, aggressive and difficult to calm. The latter has more hope, though it is not easy on grown-ups who have to juggle work, virtual school (which has huge problems of its own, but that discussion cannot happen here), home, attention to child, financial stress and Covid-19 anxiety. This pushback is, in fact, a display of the child’s resilience. It is demanding an outlet for its age-appropriate energy. It is not the child who is wrong. The times we live in are.

We need to have some honest conversations in our family gatherings. We need to say out loud what the last eight months have done to us — both as a family and as individuals, of all ages. From the little ones who no longer go to nursery school, to the young people waiting for their colleges to open; the carers who get no time for themselves, the families where proximity may have brought tensions to the fore but perhaps greater closeness. We need to acknowledge to ourselves, and to each other, what we have lost — whether it is work, relationships, money, opportunities or meaning. We need to have conversations about what gives meaning to our lives now. What we wake up for in the morning.

Children learn more from what they observe and less from what they are told. Let us make our love evident by demonstrating that despite our own struggles, we see theirs too.

Nupur Dhingra Paiva is a Delhi-based child psychotherapist and author of Love & Rage: The Inner Worlds of Children

Published on November 13, 2020

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