Children on the coronavirus
Dr. Gail Sinitsky and Dr. May Lene Karlsen on how children should co-construct their ‘new normal’.
14 May 2020
If the coronavirus crisis has shown us one thing, it is the nation’s collective compassion for children and in particular for those who are vulnerable and in need. People have shown tremendous acts of kindness. The people cooking meals for families in need. The professionals creating ‘self-care kits’ and writing therapeutic stories to help support children emotionally. The numerous parents, teachers and community services offering free, online educational and sport activities. The individuals and organisations who are sharing their perspectives and expertise with schools and education services to help shape children’s ‘new normal’.
‘Normal’ of course is a contentious term. It’s not an objective knowable reality. Rather, the way we view ‘normal’ is constructed by a range of historical, cultural, social and political contexts. So it follows that this ‘new normal’ will be what we conceptualise it to be – shaped by our multi-faceted environments, a dynamic process of co-narrating and co-constructing our experiences. Children should form a central a part of this co-construction of their ‘new normal’. It is their fundamental human right that they are given the opportunities to have their views listened to and taken seriously, particularly when some very big decisions are being made about their lives (United Nations, 1989). Yet, it has been striking to us that their lived experiences, views and ideas are rarely being represented in politics or across the media. This is in stark contrast to the prominent collective adult voice.
This has been the beating heart behind our initiative – Children Heard – a project aiming to provide opportunities for children to share their views about important events and situations in their lives. Through our current online survey, ‘Children on the Coronavirus’, we are on a mission to engage children in the collective dialogue. Often, children use arts and creativity to process and express their lived experiences. Therefore, as well as answering a series of questions, children are also invited to upload a drawing or painting entitled ‘The Coronavirus and my Life’. Children as young as 4, from the UK and around the world, have used our platform, helping us to capture their perspectives.
(Age 6, Norway)
Children have, for example, expressed a whole spectrum of emotions:
- ‘It makes me feel scared and upset’ – age 7
- ‘Frustrated and scared’ – age 4
- ‘Annoyed and unhappy’ – age 8
- ‘Happy because I do things like playing with my mum and dad and sister’ – age 7
Some children have described the pandemic as catastrophic:
- ‘This virus… brings catastrophe’ – age 8
- ‘It’s sucking life from society’ – age 12
- ‘It’s major, it’s dangerous for everyone’ – age 8
What can we take from these expressions? The co-construction of meaning is a dynamic process of interchange between people and groups. With a survey, in the absence of this dialogue, we are essentially left with isolated statements, detached from context, which we have to take care not to over-interpret or over-generalise. Yet, it can inspire considerations as to what might be important within our ‘new normal’. This may include a shift towards a more nurture-driven, resilience-building educational system that provides more space for emotional literacy and mental health promotion. The ‘new normal’ will inevitably involve a re-integration into school and social events. Re-discovering strengths-based narratives – to counterbalance the ‘catastrophe’ narrative – may be valuable, helping children to feel empowered and safe as they develop new ways of social distance learning, interacting and playing.
(Age 9, UK)
The survey responses do not necessarily provide solutions to what might constitute the ‘new normal’, but they do remind us that children are continually making sense of and constructing their new realities during this pandemic. Indeed, the ‘new normal’ is on children’s minds:
- ‘We didn’t lose our lives literally, but we lost them metaphorically’ – age 12
- ‘People will be more thankful for food’ – age 5
- I think people will appreciate small things’ – age 12
- ‘Time to chill out, reflect and stand for unity’ – age 16
Here, children may be reflecting a process we know as post-traumatic growth, a well-documented concept emphasising the transformative and meaningful personal development that can occur after enduring a trauma (Tedeshi & Calhoun, 2004). We are witnessing this already across social media: people expressing a greater sense of compassion for others, a new respect for the environment, a deeper sense of gratitude.
Post-traumatic growth is not limited to the individual. It happens also to groups of people. Meaningful cognitive and behavioural shifts occur in families, in schools, and in wider communities. As important members of society, children’s experiences and ideas should be included in this collective post-trauma reaction. In some countries, children are a clear part of this process. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, for example, has been holding press conferences for children as a means of ensuring their voices form a part of the coronavirus response. Though the UK is trailing behind in this arena, it has been heartening to have received a positive response to our project as well as to see other similar campaigns. There have been some reservations, however. One friend, for example, expressed her support for our project, but was reluctant to ask her own child to participate: ‘He’s feeling settled at the moment, I don’t want to ask him anything about coronavirus in case it makes him anxious.’
When crises hit, we can become more protective of children, our instinct is to shield them. Yet, at what cost? When fear becomes an obstacle to hearing children’s voices, are we unintentionally preventing them from being active agents in their lives? Our best hope is that children are treated as co-constructors of their ‘new normal’, agents with lived experiences, concerns and ideas that are valid and valued. Of course, the process of promoting children’s voices should not be treated as a ‘tick box’ exercise; nor should children’s views be over-generalised or handled as evidence to ‘back up’ policy and decision making. Rather, we should approach the task reflexively and with a belief that children have meaningful contributions to make to the co-construction of their – and our – lives.
Children can get involved at: www.childrenheard.com
- Dr Gail Sinitsky, Counselling Psychologist
- Dr May Lene Karlsen, Counselling Psychologist
Tedeshi, R.G. & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence.Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
United Nations. (1989). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at: www.unicef.org/crc/ (accessed 12 May 2020)
Our journalist Ella Rhodes spoke to Gail Sinitsky for an update:
What has happened since we last heard from you?
We are delighted with how children have engaged with our survey. In addition to UNICEF Norway, we are now also working with UNICEF in Iceland and Slovenia. We are looking at how we can engage schools in our 'drawings' project, and we have started this in Norway. We’d love to get UK schools on board. With hindsight are there other elements of the Covid-19 crisis so far where you feel children's voices should have been listened to more? (e.g. going back to school)
We feel that children's voices should be listened to throughout, at every stage. We think it would have been really important to have heard children's perspectives on re-opening schools, and in particular what they feel they need to help them with this transition. There's a lot of debate at the moment in the UK regarding why the retail and hospitality industries are opening but schools are still closed to the majority of children until at least September. It would be wonderful to hear children's views on this debate. Children are hearing, witnessing, living through the same political contexts as us and so we would have liked the press conferences to have included the voices of children, on all topics.
Looking to the future, once the crisis has calmed down a little, are there areas where you think children's voices should be included? Absolutely. It's hard to pinpoint exact areas because their voices should be included across the board. We should include their voices when we evaluate the costs and lessons learnt from the pandemic. How do we move forward as individuals and families, schools and education services, health services such as CAMHS, wider communities, and society? Children will have valuable things to contribute to this dialogue and they should be part of this re-build. We hope also that children´s perspectives will have a place in historical records – i.e. how the pandemic is being remembered and written about. Not just with regards to adults talking about children through statistics, theories, observations and concerns, but direct children's voices through stories, accounts, pictures and so on.