Covid-19: Anxiety disorders profound in children living with disabilities

By Tshepiso Mabote *BSHD

For adults, the coronavirus continues to be a source of stress as they are constantly bombarded with national and global updates on the covid-19 pandemic through social media and a myriad of news outlets locally and across the world.

In dealing with ensuing anxieties, shared jokes and memes with friends and family have become rather common. Twitter and Facebook are ablaze with witticisms that have kept people entertained as well as informed about the virus. Listening to music, reading, watching television shows as well as exercising are other popular ways of deflecting the situation. All this is good and well, but what of the children?

Over the past two months of Botswana’s extreme social distancing, children have asked repeatedly why it is that they cannot visit their friends or have sleep overs while on lockdown. Not being able to celebrate birthday parties with their friends, was extremely disappointing.

Parent-child relations were also challenged, adding another strain to the pressure children were already enduring. While they struggled to adapt to online classrooms for example, their parents tried to juggle working from home with nurturing for them.

With the growing cases of covid-19 around the world, e-learning has become the norm all over the world after several countries enforced lockdowns to curb the spread of Covid-19. The Executive Director for UNICEF, Henrietta Fore, recently called on schools and educators to pull together and explore every avenue to keep children learning.

Rwanda, a country which currently has more than 3 million students out of school according to UNICEF, has turned to one of its most accessible mediums of communication–radio.   Botswana has not been left behind, lessons have been made available through the national radio and television stations. Students with internet access are also taking lessons online. Several schools in Gaborone, such as Westwood International School and Gaborone International School have adopted the e-learning approach and are using various platforms such as Microsoft teams, purple mash, zoom and Managebac to make lessons easier for their students. While some have asked educators to record videos and voice notes for their students. Unfortunately for children living with disabilities, many Special Education schools, such as Camp Hill located in Otse cannot provide e-learning as most of their students are from less privileged households with no computers and internet access and at home.  

The attempts to ensure that students do not repeat the school year in 2021 have been overwhelming for students and can cause anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders present themselves in various ways such as constant worry about the unknown, uncertainty, fear and frustration. Children may also constantly be nervous and needing constant affirmations that things will be okay again. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America posits that a sudden change in routine and everyday life can bring about anxiety in children. Sharing the same sentiment, the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights that children may respond to stress in different ways such as being clingy, anxious, withdrawn, angry or agitated as well as bedwetting. It is therefore important for parents to observe their children to identify changes in their behaviors.

Anxiety disorders can also be characterized by irritability, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, constant fidgeting and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. In severe cases children may pull out their hair or pick at their skin until it bruises or tears. Many children may develop panic disorders, which may make them feel like the walls are closing in on them or they cannot breathe properly. Anxiety disorders in children with disabilities may be more profound as they cannot understand the need to suddenly change their routines.

For parents with children with disabilities, this is an exceedingly trying time because learning and schooling for children with disabilities requires a team of specialists such as occupational therapists, speech therapists and learning support. As is, these children are missing out because e-learning does not accommodate them. UNICEF has since urged educators to be more inclusive and copy strategies that are used by other countries to make learning accessible.

To ease stress and anxiety in children, UNICEF, WHO and several professionals in the education field recommend that parents and teachers do the following:

  • Kesaolopa Motswagole, a School Counsellor at Westwood International school, is of the view that it is important to create an open and supportive environment where children know they can ask questions. “Parents have to answer questions honestly while using child-friendly concepts. They should be ready to repeat information and explanations several times as children may forget or be overwhelmed,” she says. She however emphasizes that if children are not ready to talk about things that cause them anxiety, it is best not to force them. Asking children what they know in a question and answer format is recommended, as parents may be surprised by what children pick up from all the media coverage and talking to each other.
  • Make washing hands and other precautions a fun activity by showing them online challenges such as the “the mask challenge” and the “handwashing challenge” Show them the one done by the President and First lady of Botswana, to emphasize its importance.
  • As a matter of precaution reduce access to the news as this maybe overwhelming for children and this can cause anxiety and panic attacks. There is no need to tell them about death rate statistics and other gruesome information. Motswagole emphasizes that parents must monitor what children watch about the virus as some images may be frightening.
  • Try and keep the same routine every day, this can be done by following a set schedule that both parties agree on. Schedule must include school time, chores, leisurely activities such as baking, watering the garden, riding their bike or arts and crafts and going for a walk around the yard or neighborhood.
  • Adequately prepare learners for e-learning by providing the timetable from the teacher, necessary stationary and supporting them with tasks as allocated by the teacher.
  •  Contact the teacher or tutors if the child is feeling overwhelmed with schoolwork so it can be broken into manageable, smaller tasks with breaks in between, particularly those who have attention deficit disorders and cannot focus on tasks for too long.
  • Be patient with students with learning difficulties as their anxiety can cause them to be unsettled during e-learning.  The Anxiety Disorders Association of America suggests that if the anxiety disorder is causing your child to struggle academically, it is important to talk to the teacher, principal or counselor.
  • Allow children to contact friends, grandparents or anyone who they are close to; avoiding separation anxiety. It may be through Facebook, skype or regular phone calls.
  • Let kids be kids by watching their favorite television shows or playing video games.
  • Children can learn new hobbies such as knitting, sewing, making toy cars or baking and helping in the kitchen or garden to keep them occupied. Parents can google crafts to do with their children using recycled paper.

All things said and done, if a child’s anxiety is uncontrollable and he or she feels overwhelmed to the point where it affects them physically and emotionally, it is advisable to take the child to the doctor for assessment. Doctors may do an assessment and prescribe medication to control the anxiety, but this is only in severe cases.  If not treated, anxiety disorders can become chronic, more so in children living with disabilities.

*Tshepiso Mabote is the Vice Chairperson and Disability Coordinator for Botswana Society for Human Development (BSHD), an NGO that brings you this column. For more please like us of Facebook and visit us at: