Safeguarding our children’s mental health

14 September 2020 | Opinion

Windhoek • Ayesha Wentworth

Life is tough, no doubt about it. Just assess your own life and all the things that are thrown at you on a daily basis, not even mentioning what we are all going through in 2020.
A collective mental health challenge for Namibia.
As adults we have coping mechanisms to deal with our stress, anxiety and general issues that we face. Some of these are healthier than others. For example, turning to stimulants of any kind only offers short term relief and often creates longer term problems.
Talking about feelings and about mental health is still very much in its infancy in our country. Which leads to even bigger problems and challenges. Now imagine you are a child.
Our children are often a mirror of ourselves and whatever issues, challenges and anxieties that we are going through or stressors also impact children. Adults often think children don’t deal or have stress or challenges, but in that way, they are just like us. Maybe even more susceptible as they do not have the coping mechanisms that we have learned over the years.
This is still a very much overlooked issue in Namibia and it can have serious consequences. Just look at the number of young children, teenagers and young adults robbing themselves of a future because they see no way out. Turning to drugs, alcohol or even suicide as is reported in the media with alarming frequency.
How do we care, nurture and look out for our children? Not just our own kids, but as a community and as stakeholders in all Namibian children’s lives? Especially during the uncertainty concerning Covid-19.

Havoc
Children no longer have their routine, they are away from their school friends, activities and structure. This can wreak havoc on their sense of well-being and nothing really makes sense any more. Just imagine what small children must be thinking now everyone is forced to wear masks, or that they are no longer allowed to hug, play in close proximity to others, or do a million other things that used to be normal. It is enough to drive adults to the edge, let alone children.
So, how do we help children navigate these strange and unusual times?
There’s no easy remedy, no one size fits all. All children are different and react differently to situations and to possible solutions presented to them. One thing not to do, is tell them to ‘suck it up’ or just get ‘over it’ or ‘ignore it’, whatever ‘it’ may be.
Engage with the children. Have them speak about their feelings, free from judgement and make them feel safe within their family, whichever form the family-unit may take. Help them cope with the uncertainty of the upcoming school year by providing some structure to their everyday lives.
Establish a daily routine. If it is possible to arrange play dates or interactions with their friends, try to make it happen whilst observing social-distancing rules and protocols.
Just as adults like to vent their feelings and emotions, children also need an escape valve. Give them the opportunity to do so and in their own way.
Give them time to open up, let them talk as much or as little as they want. Sometimes giving them a creative outlet can be the way of getting their feelings out into the open. Give them the sense that their ideas, thoughts and emotions matter and are taken seriously. It helps develop their self-worth and self-esteem. Both of which are essential to having them cope with challenges and strengthens their mental health and resilience.
Keep them entertained, challenged and give them the opportunity to be themselves. At the same time, just like adults make sure if possible they also still get enough fresh air and don’t let them overindulge. Staying positive and active all contribute to keeping a child happy, healthy and mentally resilient.
* Ayesha Wentworth is a clinical psychologist in the ministry of education.

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