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Children suffer most from being locked down

April 29, 2020

During the coronavirus crisis, children have been seen as potential virus carriers or obstacles to parents working from home. But some little ones will suffer the most during this time.

Eltern Streit Kind Familienstreit
Image: Fotolia

"Mama, when is this corona gonna be over?" my 8-year-old asked the other day. He would love to go to the football field with his friends again. Well, unfortunately, Mama has no idea.

Being a parent wasn't an easy job even in pre-coronavirus times. Just creating and maintaining the structure that makes family life possible in the first place is hard work.

It's even harder to feel like you're failing again and again because of self-imposed principles. 

Infografik Kinder in der Coronakrise EN

This is why coronavirus measures have hit families particularly hard. Suddenly, everyone is on top of each other. Overstretched parents have to work, teach their children and also comfort and reassure their kids, despite their own existential concerns. Unachievable demands, especially for single parents.

Parents' nerves are tested more than usual and noble ideals of positive parenting quickly falter. The psychological burden is enormous for every family member, but above all, it's felt by children.

Children under the radar

"The abrupt closure of facilities and the lack of contact with friends and educators for weeks on end means a misunderstood and possibly traumatic loss of important attachment figures," the German Academy for Child and Youth Medicine said in a statement.

Read more: Solidarity: How the coronavirus makes us more willing to help

However, to date the political debate has hardly focused on the needs of children, aside from their performance in school. 

"Children and adolescents have not been seen as persons with equal rights in previous decision-making processes, but rather as potential virus carriers," said the German Academy for Child and Youth Medicine. For children from difficult family backgrounds, this circumstance can be not only unjust but fatal.

Unheard calls for help

Anna Wilden is worried. The social worker works in the Family Support Service — an outpatient, family help department of a children's home. She looks after families who turn to the Youth Welfare Office for help, which then sends families' cases to organizations like her children's home.

Wilden usually visits her clients in person. Since contact restrictions came into force, everything is now done over the phone — and that can be very one-dimensional.

"I no longer see facial expressions or posture," she explained. The subtext can often be lost — information that could be vital for social workers to know.

"If we suspect child endangerment, we naturally go to visit families," said Wilden. However, she said that since day care centers are closed, fewer and fewer reports of suspected child endangerment have been received by Child Welfare Services.

Families in a state of emergency

The situation also worries Stefanie Fried, a consultant for child protection at the child rights organization Save the Children.

Learning revolution - but not for everyone?

"In other countries, Spain and Italy, for example, there have been increasing reports from women and also children that violence has increased at home," said Fried. She estimates that the situation in Germany is similar. "The question is just when these people will be able to speak out and their voices will be heard." 

Read more: Coronavirus and mental health: 'We are not made for social isolation'

Fried believes children were not sufficiently taken into account in decisions about what measures to take to combat COVID-19.

A recent statement from concerned pediatricians highlighted similar concerns.

"In the clinics, cases of endangerment of children's well-being are observed," the physicians wrote. They're not sure if these cases are because of changed living conditions in homes under lockdown.

There is no scientific evidence that the restrictive measures imposed on children are really helpful in containing the virus.

"Initial case studies show that adults are more likely to infect children than vice versa," said the statement of the German Academy for Child and Youth Medicine, referencing data from the Robert Koch Institute.

Coronavirus: How to stop it spreading into your home

"So why not stop contact between risk groups and children, and instead reopen playgrounds and day care centers?" asked Fried. Pediatricians warn that many children and families do not have the resilience to survive the current restrictions without consequences.

Good is good enough

Even the most loving families are reaching their limits, with the many possibilities for evasion and distraction in the home. Lowering expectations about their ability to home-school can help parents relax a bit.

"It is the task of parents to get up with their children every morning and do what you have to and can do to get through the day," said psychologist Klaus Neumann about the realities of parenting in everyday life. "Nevertheless, the next day we get up again, do what we have to do, and try to make it through."

It is important to accept this fact, said Neumann, as children can learn something very important from this. 

"'My parents are stand-up people. They always come back. They can fall over and explode, scream, slam doors, but they come back'," he explained. That creates confidence.

Read more: How to stay healthy at home during the coronavirus lockdown 

Neumann worked for the Kinderschutzzentrum München (Munich Child Protection Center) for 30 years.

"There were a frightening amount of normal people with normal problems that occasionally, when they manifest themselves, they can have terrible consequences: neglect, physical and emotional violence."

Neumann also assumes that such cases are more frequent now, during the coronavirus pandemic. But the lockdown measures could also bring families closer together — not only literally, but also figuratively.

Infografik Probleme Kontaktbeschränkung EN

Pandemic rules

According to Neumann, it's important that "in this wild animal enclosure, there is a corner for every tiger in which it can retreat." Even if that is the bathroom or a closet. Rituals that regulate living together are now more important than ever to delay breakdowns for as long as possible. "We're getting closer, that's the way it is at this time. We can either clash, which leads to conflict. But the parent-child relationship can also deepen," he said.

Read more: Coronavirus: We can still laugh! 

In fact, many families are enjoying the unexpected quality time together, as shown in a survey commissioned by Save the Children. For example: With the football fields closed, my son and I cycle together a lot; we read and play more. That is the wonderful upside to the restrictions.

It would be nice, said Neumann, if we could remember this feeling and, even if everything goes back to "normal," keep some of this humility in the face of life's imponderables.

We should not forget how valuable time with our children can be, even after the pandemic. However, a child's need to spend time outdoors with friends playing shouldn't be forgotten either.

DW journalist Julia Vergin
Julia Vergin Senior editor and team lead for Science online