Emotional meltdowns, mood swings, and anger outbursts are becoming more frequent within cloistered households, coterminously with rising incidence of domestic violence, child abuse, murder and suicides – Cynthia John, Archana N. & Mini P.
Ludhiana. Seven people have been murdered in Ludhiana district by family members including husbands, wives and children in home isolation since the national lockdown was imposed on March 25.
Gurgaon. Frustrated over constant quarrels during the lockdown period, a Gurgaon resident murdered his wife and subsequently committed suicide in April. According to their daughter, her parents were upset and frustrated about being confined at home for over a month and were constantly quarrelling.
Mumbai. A seven-year-old boy with complaints of severe temper tantrums and extreme digital dependence was directed to a psychiatrist’s clinic in July. According to his parents, since the lockdown began he has been complaining about not being able to play outdoors. These complaints have escalated into aggravated temper tantrums when denied digital devices.
These randomly selected case histories herald a new mental health problem — lockdown rage, aka Covid anger — defined as intense frustration and anger triggered by lockdown restrictions and social distancing rules necessitated by the rampaging Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the country. Six months since the first Covid-19 infection was reported in the southern state of Kerala, this deadly epidemic is showing no signs of abating with cases continuously spiking (2.5 million infections and 49,000 deaths countrywide upto August 15).
Even as the country has begun Unlock 1.0, life and living in India’s 274 major towns and cities is nowhere near normal with localised lockdowns being imposed at short notice. Schools, colleges, offices, restaurants, cinemas, and parks are still shuttered and the great majority of the urban population is working from home even as millions are battling job loss, pay cuts and salary delays. The loss of personal freedom and mobility, financial and health anxieties and prolonged social isolation is playing havoc with the psychological and emotional well-being of children and parents.
Consequently, emotional meltdowns, mood swings, and anger outbursts are becoming more frequent within cloistered households, coterminously with rising incidence of domestic violence, child abuse, murder and suicides. The Delhi-based National Commission for Women reports that domestic violence complaints hit a ten-year peak during the period March 25-May 31 with the commission having received 1,477 complaints from women across the country. Moreover, the Central government’s Childline India has reported that the number of distress calls from children requiring official intervention have risen to 1.58 lakh in March-July this year (cf. 1.4 lakh calls last year). Complaints of forced child marriages, emotional and sexual abuse of children, child trafficking, corporal punishment and cybercrime are rising by the day, warn Childline managers.
“Five months on, many households are still unable to come to terms with the pandemic and the sea change it has prompted in life as we knew it. The new reality is parents working and children learning from cramped homes, in constant fear of the dreaded virus. All too often social isolation is compounded by financial anxiety, job layoffs and uncertainty about the future.This has brought inter-personal relationships — between spouses, parents and children, and other family members — to the edge. There are high levels of irritation, anger and frustration in a multiplying number of households,” says Dr. Sulata Shenoy, director, Turning Point Centre for Psychological Assessments, Therapies and Counseling, Bangalore.
According to Shenoy, children are frequently the targets of parents’ frustration and anger against pandemic restrictions. “Too often, parents vent their frustrations on children who in turn react with temper tantrums. I am counseling a young mother who used to scream, beat and slap her two-year-old son to control his aggressive behaviour. After a few weeks of counseling, the mother became aware that her aggression was exacerbating the child’s temper tantrums. It’s important for parents to manage their anger and avoid communicating anxiety through words or aggressive behaviour towards children,” advises Shenoy.
Parental anger, frustration and despair about ways and means to cope with the pandemic is understandable. The economic and lifestyles disruption caused by the Coronavirus hasn’t been experienced for over a century, and parents have no coping precedents to fall back on. The fallout of rising rage and frustration provoked by continuing national and state lockdowns, is a rising swell in the number of children and adolescents experiencing mental health destabilisation. While youngest children may regress to thumb sucking, bed wetting and unprovoked temper tantrums, an increasing number of adolescents are exhibiting sleep deprivation, digital addiction and suppressed anger morbidities.
“Children and teenagers tend to internalise parents’ financial, socio-emotional and health anxieties. When they hear their parents engage in conversations laced with anxiety and fear, they experience frustration, insecurity and depression. They react by crying, shouting and throwing temper tantrums while some withdraw from family life and become over-dependent on digital distractions,” comments Isha S, clinical psychologist at the Ananya Child Development Centre, Hyderabad.
Rajat Soni, a New Delhi-based teens and parenting coach, and author of an e-book Un-Judge Your Teenager (2020), believes that adolescents are especially vulnerable to absorbing parental anxieties and frustration. “Though all children are adversely affected by the pandemic and related restrictions, an especially vulnerable demographic is adolescents. Physically active teenagers are not used to being confined to their homes under 24/7 parental attention, supervision and control. This can cause intense irritation and anxiety within adolescents who often vent their frustration through angry outbursts and even violence against their parents,” says Soni.
Though it’s easier said than done, the consensus of opinion among psychologists and parenting experts is that it’s imperative that parents practice anger management during this unprecedented pandemic era.“It’s important that parents accept and address the lockdown anger and frustrations they are experiencing. Identifying the root of the problem and addressing it is the first step. For instance, if you accept that your frustration is mainly because of the loss of personal freedom and mobility, then you can devise enjoyable distracting activities permissible under government unlock guidelines for the family. Reimagining and transferring the problem into something positive alleviates stress and anger,” advises Grace Priscilla, psychologist at The Mind Research Foundation, Bangalore. (see box p.12).
Other suggestions and recommendations from psychologists and childcare counselors to enable families — parents, children and adolescents — to control/manage anger include: Adequate sleep. A global study of 350,000 adolescents, published in the US-based Sleep Medicine Review (July 2020), has concluded that sleep deprivation prompts 83 percent increase in anger. Moreover, several other studies highlight the adverse effects of sleep loss — hyperactivity, reduced concentration, behavioural problems, anxiety, aggression and irritability. During the lockdown, there’s a tendency to sleep late after binge-watching television serials and/ or over-use of digital devices. Ensure that young children, adolescents and the entire family get sufficient restful sleep, especially during this stressful pandemic period when anxiety and frustration is normative.
Communication. It’s very important that family members communicate with each other. Open and respectful communication creates mutually supportive home environments that encourage family members to express their differences, anger and frustration as well as love and admiration for each other. Mutually supportive communication encourages family members to unitedly resolve problems. “Lack of communication is the most frequent complaint in all families. Lockdown anger can be managed if family members discuss their fears and anxieties with each other. However, it’s important for parents to engage and communicate with children in a non-judgmental manner. Talk, listen, appreciate, reflect and connect with your children,” says Rajat Soni (quoted earlier).
Allow personal time (aka me-time). Parents need to carve out time in their daily routine for ‘me/us time’ when they can de-stress and relax. “To alleviate stress and manage anger, parents need ‘me time’ to do feel good activities and clear their minds,” advises Soni.
Online counselling. If parents/children are unable to alleviate stress, and are exhibiting extreme symptoms of depression and anxiety, consult a counselor. “Online therapy is a good alternative although face-to-face therapy is the better option for those who need it. But it shouldn’t be neglected,” says psychiatrist Isha S.
Family support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from immediate and extended family and friends when you need it. “Discuss your apprehensions and frustrations with family members, and support each other. Keep communication lines open, set short-term goals, and motivate each other with positive thoughts,” advises Isha S.
Create work/study spaces. Specify permanent work spaces/stations for all family members for study, project work and online learning. It will increase focus and concentration and make children feel in control of their routines.
Distract and reinforce. To avoid showdowns between siblings, parents should try the distract and reinforce strategy, recommends psychologist Dr. Sulata Shenoy. “Encouraging children to use distractor techniques such as counting backward, diverting the mind, using substitutes such as a pillow to vent anger, are useful to calm children. This can be followed by positive reinforcement and rewards for good behaviour,” says Shenoy.
Address Covid-19 fears. Explain the history and facets of the Covid-19 pandemic to children in age-appropriate language, and ways and means to protect themselves against it.
Positive strategies for parents to manage lockdown anger
Grace Priscilla, psychologist at The Mind Research Foundation, Bangalore, shares five strategies to enable parents to reduce lockdown anxiety and manage children’s anger.
Set boundaries. As working from home, childcare, online classes, household chores etc overlap, it’s important for parents to set clear boundaries and communicate new rules and expectations to children. For instance, explain why it’s important that they don’t disturb you during working hours — you could put a colourful sign on your door saying something like ‘Mummy’s busy, speak to daddy’ or vice versa. Moreover, encourage children to help with household chores by packaging them as valuable learning experiences.
Indulge in relaxing activities. Time must be made for breathing exercises, meditation, reading and physical exercise to de-stress and spread calmness.
Create in-home holidays. Set aside a day when the whole family gets together for special activities such as cooking or baking, a movie or indoor games.
Be kind to yourself. In the new normal, all routines have run awry. Don’t be self-critical and judge yourself too harshly as a parent. Practise self-compassion. This is not the time to go into frenzy for not being the ‘best’ parent. Accept that parenting during a global pandemic crisis is especially difficult.
Connect with other parents. Connect with your network of family and friends who have children and exchange notes about how they are coping with child care, household chores, online learning, and share ideas and solutions.
Enabling children to cope with lockdown anxiety
Sudha Madhavi, child psychologist, Taare Counselling Center, Hyderabad, believes that Covid-19 pandemic-related social distancing restrictions are particularly hard on children. They are on a roller coaster ride of emotions such as denial, nonacceptance, fear, and insecurity about the well-being of their parents and siblings.
“Children are feeling caged indoors with all their energies trapped within as their parents struggle to manage dwindling incomes, balance office and home duties and cope with grim news of the spiking pandemic. To attract parental attention and vent their frustration, children often throw temper tantrums and display aggressive or anti-social behaviour. Regrettably, most parents react to children’s anxiety symptoms with harsh disciplining and in some cases, corporal punishment. This exacerbates bad situations. Parents need to be kind and sympathetic to children during this period of unprecedented crisis,” says Madhavi.
Madhavi’s prescription for parents to enable children to combat pandemic-related anxiety:
- Ideate creative activities to meaningfully engage children.
- Plan family activities which children love such as indoor games/movie sessions.
- Canalise their energies by persuading them to help with household chores.
- Prepare a daily study, play and other activities time-table, and help them to adhere to it.
- Allow children few hours free time every day to do what they want.
- Keep children informed about the latest good news and developments to reduce anxiety and stress.
- Focus on boosting children’s mental and physical health, rather than academic learning.
The human body gives you early warning of an anger attack. Reading warning signs can help you take steps to manage your anger.
Early warning signs
- Faster heart beat
- Churning stomach
- Tension, irritability
- Facial flushing
- Tense shoulders
- Clenching jaw and hands
3 simple anger management ideas
Identify cause of anger
The first step to managing anger is to notice early warning signs. It’s important to acknowledge that you’re angry, even if it’s just to yourself. For example, ‘This is making me angry’ or ‘I can feel myself getting angry here’.
Once you identify early onset of anger, here are a few suggestions to calm down:
- Slow your breathing. Breathe in for two seconds and breathe out for four. Do this a few times until your heart beat slows down.
- Distract yourself with a soothing activity like listening to music, reading a magazine or just looking out of the window.
- Go for a run or walk outdoors.
- Take a warm shower.
- Talk to a friend.
Reflect on the situation
It’s advisable to reflect on what pushed you over the edge and learn from the experience. Ask yourself:
- ‘How important is this? Why am I so upset about it?’
- ‘How do I want to resolve this situation?’
- ‘Do I need to act on this, or just let it go?
Also read: Coping with the online learning revolution