Parenting in the Pandemic: How do you take care of your child’s mental health?

The pandemic has been tough on everyone. The isolation, the restrictions on our movement, fear and anxiety over COVID-19, uncertainty over school and work. All these weigh heavily on many minds, but we don’t often think about how difficult these things are for children, like our son.

In the past two years, we’ve moved twice: once, to Antipolo, in 2020, and again in 2021, back to Paranaque. For the past two years, Lucas has been going to school online, instead of seeing friends and classmates face to face. We have all been home, venturing outside only if the trip is necessary or carefully planned. Even trips to the park and the playground have been so limited. We haven’t seen family or friends, gone out for random coffee or meet-ups or reunions. Worse, Oneal’s father passed away, and it’s been so hard on Lucas. Then 2022 didn’t start out so well. And I had to leave Manila for my first field work.

To say that things have been difficult is an understatement.

One of the first things we noticed was his discomfort around new people. In the past Lucas had been quick to feel comfortable around new kids, even new adults, talking their ears off and playing with them within minutes of meeting them. But more recently we’ve noticed his reluctance to talk to strangers, to interact with anybody new. For someone who used to be warm, friendly and outgoing, we found this incredibly sad and a little worrisome.

We also noticed that more and more often, he said, “I miss big school,” or “I miss Loola and Nunu,” or even other close friends we’d visited or video called during the pandemic, like Ninang Karen, Tita Jawa, Ninong Cranky. After a visit, it would be so hard to say goodbye. Lucas would cry, sometimes scream, saying, “I don’t want to go home!”

One of the more distressing things was how resistant he was to change, or the unexpected. When the caregiver arrived to take care of Oneal’s dad, Lucas was angry, crying and saying that she should go away, that we would take care of his Papa Boy. At school, he would be upset if there was a new dance or a new song or a new exercise, sometimes leading to a crying fit with screaming. If we went somewhere, and things did not happen as he expected, the discomfort was written all over his face.

Perhaps the most troubling thing was how often he would cry and scream when he did not get what he want, or when he did not want to do what we asked him to. We would have screaming matches, and all of us would be upset. He would be so angry that he would kick, and he would scream so loudly that our ears hurt. He would cry so much that he would hyperventilate. At one point, these meltdowns were happening daily.

It was so frustrating, and upsetting. I feared that it was our fault, because we agreed to let him start a YouTube channel, because he was playing more video games than usual, because he was watching so much YouTube. I was worried we indulged him too much, then overcompensated by being too harsh when he threw a tantrum. I lost count of how many times we threatened to delete his channel, to lock up his tablet or his Nintendo Switch, to ban him from watching YouTube.

It was like his feelings were so big, and he didn’t know what to do with them, so he would just cry and scream. I thought we were horrible parents.

For a few weeks, I thought about seeking the help of a child psychologist. I’d been thinking about it since Oneal’s dad passed away in December, and I thought a session might help him with his grief. But these meltdowns made it seem like a much more urgent need.

As always, I turned to MindCare Club. I inquired about the availability of a child psychologist, how the session would work, and how much it would cost. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but we wanted to help Lucas figure out how to manage his feelings, and we needed to know what we could do about his meltdowns.

Of course ten million other things happened before we could finalize the schedule, but Oneal and I discussed it, and we agreed on a date, and paid for the session. It cost Php 6,720.00, and it’s an amount I’d gladly pay again if it means helping my son towards better mental health.

We told Lucas that we were going to talk to a doctor, that she wasn’t going to do any tests or vaccinations, that she just wanted to talk about his feelings. He was hesitant, but he said we could talk to her, and he would just sit with us. I was an anxious wreck in the days leading up to the appointment. I couldn’t focus on work, and I was so worried about what the doctor would say, about our awful parenting choices.

Dr. Rhea Concepcion met with us via VSee, Mindcare Club’s telemental health portal. She asked me and Oneal some basic questions, about our ages, our work, Lucas’ health conditions. She asked why we wanted to seek her help, and I told her everything–including the fact that I was also diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and that I was worried Lucas would have the same. She asked what Lucas was like in school, and Oneal told her how competitive he was, how quickly he would answer. We showed her his drawings.

Soon she asked if she could talk to Lucas, and he didn’t want to talk. It took me a while to convince him, but eventually he agreed. He was grumpy and reticent at first, but soon enough he was his usual cheerful and talkative self, yakking away and making jokes and talking in different voices. He told her he missed Papa Boy all the time. He told her about school. He told her about Loola and Nunu. She seemed amused by his stories, and he was enjoying the conversation so much that he got a book to read to her!

Although the session was only supposed to last for an hour and a half, we were talking to Dr. Rhea for nearly two hours. We were so relieved when she said that she had no diagnosis–she found nothing to indicate anxiety or depression, or any sort of condition, and certainly nothing that would merit medication or further counseling. She only advised balance: more offline activities, outdoor activities if possible, more breaks from screens, more dynamic and involved interaction with me and Oneal. She reminded us that the pandemic hit everyone hard, but children most especially. She pointed out that for all of us, screens had become our lifeline, for work, school and entertainment, and while it was necessary, it was also harmful and needed to be balanced with other things, other sources of information and joy. She reminded us to talk to Lucas about his grief, to remind him of happy memories so that thinking about Papa Boy would not make him sad, to let him talk if he ever brought up his grandfather.

After that session, I shed a few tears of relief. I had been so afraid that we had made horrible mistakes, that the past two years had traumatized Lucas, that the damage was irreparable, but as usual I was catastrophizing and things weren’t as bad as I feared.

Dr. Rhea told us that things wouldn’t improve overnight, and it’s something I hold on to. Already things are better. We try to play more with Lucas, and limit his watching to YouTube Kids. He’s only allowed video games for 30 minutes at a time, and only after school and merienda. I try to make time for coloring books, and Oneal plays with Hot Wheels cars with him. Lucas always helps me in the garden, and lately he’s been washing dishes too.

Because it runs in my family, there’s every chance that mental health issues will trouble Lucas later in life. But with the help of people like Dr. Rhea, hopefully we can manage it, even prevent it. I don’t know if we’ll need another session anytime soon, but for now, we’re trying our best.

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