Pandemic punishes the young

Lindi Ndlovu found her 14-year-old son on top of the roof flapping his hands and shouting at the top of his voice. 

Her older daughter had come rushing into the house shouting, “Mama, tloho u tlo bona Fenste [Mama, come and see Fentse.]”

Ndlovu went outside. Fentse was at the edge of the roof. Reeling, she remembers trying to stay calm while calling the fire brigade for help. 

“I have never been that scared in my life. I was going through all the feelings and emotions you can think of, especially because children living with autism are not scared of danger.”

This was only one of the many incidents the mother and grandmother had dealt with in the past year since her two sons and her grandson, who all live with autism, have had to stay at home and have their rigid schedules disrupted. 

The 14-year-old was taken to hospital where he was chained to his bed for five days. This further ­exacerbated the problem with his behaviour, which had steadily deteriorated because of the big changes in his schedule caused by the lockdown. He could not go to school, take walks or go to the park, all of which were part of his routine. 

He has also gone missing twice, broken windows, and become aggressive towards his younger siblings. 

Ndlovu also had to cope with the erratic behaviour of her eight-year-old son, who has become prone to outbursts and has had to take medication three times a day, something he has never done before. 

Because of the severe meltdowns and a near-death experience, the 14-year-old — with the help of social services — was placed in a centre for children with special needs. 

Her grandson has also been placed in the same centre after Ndlovu’s daughter, who looked after all three children while Ndlovu, a nurse, went to work, fell into a deep depression. 

Ndlovu is just one of many parents who have had to deal with children who haven’t coped with the changes in their lives that have come with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

East London mother Aretha Linden remembers how one morning her son woke up crying.

“ ‘Mama, is the corona over?’ he asked me. He was so emotional and said ‘ndifuna iphele — I want to go back to school’.”

When daycare centres finally opened, Linden says her son had to learn to get used to wearing a mask. 

“I feel like his reality has been distorted. He thinks this is the norm; this is how we live; this is how it’s going to be like. It will take time to adjust even when we go back to some level of normal. At times I will find him asking for his mask even though we are not supposed to wear masks.”

Linden says her seven-year-old daughter, Lunam, has also struggled with the changes. Before the announcement that schools would only re-open in February, Lunam put on her school new uniform.

“After the announcement, I told her that ‘you are going to stay at home for another month’. She cried so bad, so bad. She told me that she wanted to wear her new uniform and wanted to go back to school.”

Linden says Lunam’s life had been active and the clampdown on her movement has turned her into a frustrated little girl. Lunam says she misses playing with her friends at school and seeing her teachers. 

“I want this corona to go away. It makes me feel sad that I cannot do all the things that I love,” she says. 

Paediatrician Dr Iqbal Karbanee says it is essential for parents to prioritise their children’s wellbeing if they are experiencing anxiety or don’t have adequate social interaction during the extended school holidays.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of children displaying ­unusual behaviour as a direct consequence of the circumstances brought on by the pandemic,” says Karbanee. “Unfortunately, the changes can be very subtle and may be mistaken for bad behaviour, rather than seen in context, which, if not addressed correctly, could have long-term negative impacts on children.”

Ten-year-old Qhawe Mbabela from Port Elizabeth says what has affected him the most is not seeing his friends.

“Even though most of them stay here in the complex. I couldn’t go knock at their doors. It’s been very hard,” he says.

One morning, Qhawe’s mother, Zandile Mbabela, peeped into his bedroom and saw him deep in thought. He had been crying.

She thought her son had suffered a bad dream, but Qhawe said he felt he was living a nightmare without his friends to talk to or his grandmother to be close to.

“He was just crying hysterically. He had moved from the bed and was on the floor, on his knees, crying. He was crying like umntu onenzingo [a person who had been through a lot in life],” she said. 

Mbabela says that moment broke her because she felt there was nothing she could do about what was happening. 

Karbanee advises that parents need to patiently explain the facts about the coronavirus to their children and how it affects their emotions. 

Parents, he says, also need to be sensitive to their children’s emotional and health needs at this difficult time and show empathy for their sometimes moody behaviour.

How to keep your kids sane while they’re cooped up 

  • Plan the week upfront — but build in room for flexibility because you are dealing with young people.
  • Plan jointly with your children so they can feel empowered. Debate matters, rethink after a while, replan and reschedule, depending on how you and your children experience the timetable.
  • Set aside time for work and time to attend to your children’s need to spend a little quality time with you. 
  • Ask them regularly for their input. Be open, be flexible, listen. And expect the same from them, taking into account their level of development. 
  • Explain that people get tired physically and emotionally and that we all need to spend time on our own from time to time to help us “recharge our batteries”. Tell them that, of course, this does not mean that you do not love them. Kobus Maree, professor in the faculty of education, University of Pretoria  

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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