We are yet to witness rising levels of children’s aggression

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Katerina Kovacheva is a psychologist. For many years she has been working with children, who have development issues, have been through traumatic experiences in their early childhood, have been raised in institutions or have been adopted. She leads the Expert Support team in For Our Children Foundation.

Where did the COVID-19 crisis find you? What changes have you witnessed in the psyche of your clients during the last year?

In the beginning of March 2020 I had no idea what was really coming. I hoped that what actually happened would pass us by. I hoped that the lock down would be like a school flu vacation -- two weeks and it is gone. However, I soon realised that the situation was much more serious and that the families we work with would need a considerable amount of additional support. During the last year I witnessed how people were becoming much more anxious, more depressed, and the obsessive compulsive disorders were on the rise too. I have seen parents, who chose to stay home with their children for a considerably long time. To deal with the situation, people created their new rituals: they ordered food to avoid shopping, they washed their hands excessively, they spent much more time on cleaning their house, they disinfected each item that entered their home.

How is the isolation affecting the families?

We already have enough data to know that families with children are among the most affected groups by the covid crisis. On top of the personal issues each of us faces during the crisis, the families also have to deal with the childcare, the uncertainty of the availability of the kindergarten and school service, the constant change of the schedules coming out of this uncertainty, the simultaneous transformation of the family home into office and classroom, the financial difficulties and many more. Thus the adults in a family are often under a considerable amount of stress. During the last year most of the parents we work with are almost unable to focus and realise what is going on inside themselves, though it is an important prerequisite to attend to this subject, before we can take care of the children. At the beginning the level of stigma associated with being sick of Covid was very high and people, who were through the illness, were not comfortable discussing it for quite a long time. This probably explains the fact that families rarely shared their specific symptoms and were not looking for additional support. However, by the end of the summer of 2020 our load increased noticeably. Not only the number of cases we had to attend increased, but the complexity of the issues in the families also raised. Currently, the Covid is an important additional issue for almost all the families I work with, on top of their other primary difficulties.

Actually the covid crisis is bringing to the surface some issues, which would have gone unnoticed in normal conditions when the standard flow of daily life (like going to work, shopping, going out) leaves less space for insecurity and anxiety. The current critical situation of pandemic isolation makes the pathological processes in the families come out, which may lead to negative consequences and violence. It is very important that people in the family stay open to each other, share freely their worries and support each other.

Most of the parents we work with are almost unable to focus and realise what is going on inside themselves.

What happened to families raising children with disabilities and / or developmental difficulties?

Families with disabled children have been also seriously affected. For a long period they were not able to rely on the detrimental support they needed in the care for their children. Due to the pandemic the psychological consultations and therapy could only be done online. Some of the families did not possess the needed technology for online therapy and for others this option was simply inapplicable. As a result some of the children that needed our specialized services most were deprived of them, and their parents were forced to quit their job, so that they could take care. This was an additional crisis in their already difficult life, a crisis they were not ready for. The only positive thing in this situation was that it provoked some social discussion about the way such families live — extremely isolated even before the virus.

How do the measures for opening and closing kindergartens affect the youngest children?

We are now unable to make plans and to foresee what will happen, and thus we lack the ability to control our life. The feeling that you are in control is very important for all human beings. The chaotic kindergarten and school operation confused the children a lot. I have witnessed that the youngest ones, who were just starting their education, had a harder time adapting to the new institutions. We also noticed a sharp increase in psycho-somatic pelvic disorders, most often urinary incontinence or refusal to use the toilet, many small children stopped eating, some also had issues watching films, produced before the COVID crisis, where people did not wear face masks and hugged each other. Another thing that made small children more anxious was the restriction for bringing personal toys from home in the kindergartens. Thus they lost not just a teddy bear, but an important object that could have soothed them in times of stress and anxiety.

Why are we facing such extreme and opposite positions in this COVID-19 crisis?

When we do not have control, reality becomes frightening and people try to escape from the uncertainty in one of the two opposite directions. By denial - the covid is just a conspiracy; or by obsessive anxiety, constant fixation on all covid research, statistics and news on the topic. Both these extreme reactions are highly ineffective strategies to cope with the reality. The fight-or-flight reaction is well known to the specialists and it often appears when the person is in extreme danger. For example, the children that live in institutions and are systematically neglected very often do one of the two things: they either become aggressive, in order to draw attention to themselves, or they accept that they will never get that attention and encapsulate themselves, isolated in their inner world.

When we do not have control, reality becomes frightening and people try to escape from the uncertainty in one of the two opposite directions.

What has happened to adopted children in the last year?

For some of the children that were adopted during the last year and a half the lockdown was of great advantage. The unplanned staying at home allowed the families to spend much more time together and this helped tremendously for an easier adaptation of the children. However, the adopted children, who had to start going to kindergarten during that period, experienced higher levels of insecurity. As mentioned above this was also true for children raised in their biological families, but to a smaller extent. Generally people have started to have more nightmares after the crisis and the lockdowns began. I also saw this tendency in the families I work with, including in the children.

And what is happening behind the doors of institutions with abandoned children?

Another serious issue caused by the lockdowns is that, since March 2020, the access to all social institutions, where vulnerable families and children reside, was strongly limited. Unless there was an adoption procedure going on, or a procedure for reintegrating a child back into his/her biological family, outside therapists were seldom allowed in the institutions. This deprived children, who have been through trauma or who have development issues, from an essential service. The children living in institutions have always been isolated and have seldom received much attention from society. However, now things were even worse, as they did not go anywhere outside the institution. As we were unable to visit the children in the institutions on a regular basis I had just partial observations, but I believe the children were affected by the high levels of anxiety among the people that were taking care of them, especially in places, where there were covid cases among the staff.

For different reasons during the covid less children were being adopted or reintegrated during the covid crisis. This meant they stayed longer than needed in an institution, even if they had an opportunity to be in a family environment. We also saw the reappearance of the so-called isolators - an archaic concept that was on its way to be forgotten. And to close a child alone in a room is really very sad. To recapitulate - the children from the institutions have been through a sadder, more lonely and more isolated year, that is yet to have its influence over their lives. There is a positive tendency, though, in the last few months, as people managing such social institutions are beginning to realize the need of expert attention to the children’s anxiety and socialisation issues.

Do you think that the generation living through this crisis is experiencing a collective trauma?

The pandemic is a collective trauma and as such will have long lasting effects. It is early to say what they will exactly be, but we can already identify some processes. For example: the unconscious urge to keep a social distance; the rudeness in our reactions towards the other people that are now seen more often as a threat; the anxiety, that is probably here to stay for quite a while. We still do not know if and how will people be changed after the pandemic. I still hope that the essence of the human contact will not be significantly altered. As we know, while studying human reactions triggered by war (another well known cause of collective trauma), psychiatrists introduced a lot of new diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder for example. Whether being infected with Covid or losing a loved one to the disease will result in new psychological conditions that need to be described on their own is yet to be seen. Unfortunately, there is no such psychological research going on in Bulgaria, though our country has its own psycho-social specifics.

Was our attitude towards death changed?

I have noticed people’s extreme reactions to even banal health issues being triggered by the Covid fear. This is to a big extent due to the panic in the media. Of course the underlying reason is our fear of death and talking about death is a taboo in Bulgaria. I have seen this often in families that have faced death in different circumstances -- the parents are unable to discuss the subject with themselves, let alone their children. The adults cannot show any authentic emotion related to death. They follow the widely accepted stereotypes in Bulgaria, that as parents, they should be strong and swallow their emotions. I believe that this constant display of “strength” is harmful both for the adults and the children.

The adults cannot show any authentic emotion related to death.

Actually, children innately perceive death very naturally. They are not scared of it, unless they have witnessed adults’ reactions that lead them to believe this is scary. Children internalize their parents’ reactions. They know everything, they feel and understand. That is why it is a mistake not to talk directly with the children, if someone has died in the family. Hiding death behind statements like “he has departed for a far away place” is not only useless, as children already know, but can be dangerous. If we try to hide what really happened we start an unhealthy cycle and the children often start to show reactions like developmental regress, stuttering, pelvic disorders, even aggression. Our inability to talk about death and our anxiety related to this important subject can shape our children's future as being highly anxious parents too.

There is more and more talk about the effects on children of everything that the last year has brought, and even now. What do you see as a trend?

A very serious issue related with the Covid pandemic, that has not yet unveiled and is not widely discussed, due to the fact that children are not visiting school and kindergarten actively, is the aggression. The aggression levels have raised and will continue to rise, as aggression is one of the coping strategies people normally utilize when they face uncertainty. It is just a matter of time to see more prominently both auto-aggression directed to one self and outer aggression directed to the others in our children’s behaviour. The built-up inner tension in our children, either their own, or the one reflected from their parents’ behaviour, will have to find a vent. By being aggressive some people try to get some control back in this situation that we all feel we have diminishing control over our lives. Adults that are less reflective may overlook their need to share their experience and get psychological help and may become violent.

And what comes after this “overview on-the-go” about the crisis and how we live through it?

I think that it is extremely important for the people to go outside, to have social contacts and to share their own experiences. Social contacts are important for the mental health and the proper personality development of each one of us. After all, the most important question in our life is how we lived it, not how long it lasted. The quality of our life is not a number: 70, 80 or 90. Its fullness depends on what we do each day, how we interact with others and how we manage to be humans.

The interview with Katerina Kovacheva is part of my project "How we live now?", which explores the psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and presents the professionals from the frontline of the soul. Read more.

Share your personal story on the project's Instagram account


Autor: Vera Gotseva

Vera Gotseva is a journalist, photographer, photography educator and author of the project "How we live now?", documenting our psyche and inner experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic.