‘There’s a slowness and lethargy in our children now, a low-level melancholy’
Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon on how the pandemic is affecting children
Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon: ‘We’re putting pressure on children that we’ve never anticipated.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon is not buying any suggestions that the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting restrictions will help build resilience in children.
“In normal times an extraordinary event will happen and it will come and go in the child’s life,” Dr Muldoon says. “An extraordinary thing might be the separation or divorce of their parents. It might be the death of a grandparent. It might be the death of a dog. Those extraordinary events happen and they come and they go, and people help them to get through it, and they have support around them, and they’re not the only ones going through it. That builds resilience with a supportive family to help them with that.
“But this circumstance is a once-in-a-hundred years event. You cannot say that children are mentally prepared for this, and this will do them the world of good.
“Sixty to 70 per cent of our children will come through this well and they will look back on this and say, ‘Okay I got through that’. But the vulnerable children could find it a step too far to try and cope. We need to prepare ourselves as a society and as a government to support them when they need it.
“There’s almost a slowness and lethargy in our children now because they’ve nowhere to go, nothing to do,” he continues. “They can go from their schoolwork to their bedroom to maybe Netflix. There’s not much happening. There’s almost a low-level melancholy across them at this stage.”
No children are escaping the impacts, he explains. “For the children who don’t have added disadvantages, even for them, they’re losing out socially. They’re losing out on opportunities to learn, to grow, to learn how to navigate relationships, how to create friendships, boyfriend/girlfriend situations, romantic relationships, how to fight, how to make up.
“They’re losing the opportunity to change their boundaries, to push their boundaries. The boundaries have now been imposed by the Government as opposed to by their family, their parents.
“On the more vulnerable side, the children who are already socio-economically deprived, or have special educational needs, or perhaps medical disadvantage, that’s a bigger impact.
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For children with additional needs, Dr Muldoon flags some of the challenges arising as a result of lack of respite, even from extended family. “Nobody can come into your house to help you care for them. That’s a huge pressure 24/7 since last March, and the children with challenging behaviours, those behaviours are growing so it’s becoming much more dramatic and difficult for the parents.
“We’re putting pressure on children that we’ve never anticipated,” he continues. “None of us know the right answers and we’re constantly trying to change the rules and the regulations and the movement and the timing, so even the strongest child will find themselves under pressure here. That’s why we’re seeing an increase in anxiety. We’re seeing an increase in eating disorders. We’re seeing an increase in challenging behaviour.”
Increased alcohol use and domestic violence are also having an impact on children. “Across the board we’ve lost our child protection framework – our public health nurses would drop into a house to see how they’re getting on. The GP would see children regularly in normal times. The teacher would see them every day to see ‘okay that child has the same clothes on the last four days, what’s going on’ – they’d ask questions. So there’s nobody reporting concerns about children.”
As pressure on children has increased, Dr Muldoon says their tools to deal with it have disappeared. “How do children handle pressure? They talk to their friends, they get involved in a peer group. They’re working together, they running together, they get to escape it by going playing football, swimming or soccer, whatever group, whatever they like, dancing, mechanics whatever it is.
“But all of those opportunities, which generally help us to maintain a balance, are gone.”
School closures have compounded the difficulties and Dr Muldoon says that it is “unfair” that all children with additional needs are not back in the classroom. “When the Government made the decision back on the 4th or 5th of January that all children with special educational needs would return to school, I thought they meant all children with special educational needs regardless of whether they’re in special schools, special classes or mainstream. And that’s what should have happened, because again those are the children who are in situations where they’re regressing with their education.
“They’re probably regressing in their social skills and they’re regressing in their ability to maintain a sense of equilibrium within themselves.
“Having to wait till the middle of April doesn’t make sense to me. Somebody is not putting a child at the centre of the decision-making. There’s going to be a cost for that and it’s going to be huge, and it’s the parents carrying it at the moment.”
While Dr Muldoon feels “the social stuff will start to look after itself once we get back on track”, he says “there will be educational losses”. “We’re going to have to catch up on our educational attainment for all of our children. “We’re looking at the guts of about seven months of educational loss.
“One of the good things the Department of Education did in September was it focused the first month, told every school in the country: wellbeing, wellbeing, wellbeing; don’t worry about education. I think the same will have to happen here.
“I do think there has to be a plan for catch-up, whether that’s summer camps or different timetables or something. The priority isn’t the academic side, it’s about getting children back on track mentally and psychologically, that’s the crucial part. But the education catch-up will have to be planned for as well.”
“You can’t expect the same degree of learning,” he says of remote learning. “None of us are working at 100 per cent anymore. Just because they sat in front of a screen and looked at classes for the day doesn’t guarantee it’s all gone in in the same way, because they’re not mentally attuned, while they would like to be.”
As parents try to navigate parenting through a pandemic, Dr Muldoon’s advice is to “be kind”. “That’s crucial, to be kind to yourself and to be kind to the people around you, whether that’s your children, your husband, whatever else, because nobody is doing this well,” he says of the struggle to juggle it all.
“Be childlike. Us parents, we spend all our time worrying, concerned and trying to get things right and trying to be on top of our job and on top of the homeschooling. Somehow just sit down with the kids and play with them. It’s as much for yourself.”