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Circuit breaker blues: How to help children cope with changes to routine

Don't shy away from talking about COVID-19 with your children and check with them what they know, how they feel and the questions they might have, says a psychologist.

Circuit breaker blues: How to help children cope with changes to routine

Ms Chia Shun Yi comforting her son who broke into tears after he learnt that he cannot go to the playground for at least a month. (Photo: Chia Shun Yi)

SINGAPORE: In the not-too-distant past, 5pm was a special time for little Jed Choo. The four-year-old would head to the playground downstairs and run around freely. His mum, Ms Chia Shun Yi, describes him as a “very outgoing” boy who would make friends with anyone there. 

But when recreation facilities were closed off due to concerns over the rising number of COVID-19 infections in Singapore, along went Jed's beloved playground. 

“We had to tell him the playground had closed and showed him photos of the playground being taped up,” said Ms Chia. 

The revelation triggered a full-blown meltdown from her son, who did not understand why he could not play with and meet his friends for at least a month. His disappointment permeated his wails. 

IN PICTURES: Singapore switches off for a circuit breaker

As Singapore moves into the second week of a month-long "circuit breaker" period aimed at breaking the cycle of transmission, cabin fever has crept up on many. Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong acknowledged how some people are finding it hard to adjust to the measures, but the Government has had to reject many appeals for activities to be conducted. 

“We cannot let up at this stage. These are still early days and we have at least another three weeks to go. We have to double down on our efforts and just stay at home.”

While young children play and learn from home, psychologists that CNA spoke to advised parents to look out for behavioural changes, anxiety and even stress in them. 

READ: Commentary - Home-based learning is strange, new ground but we can conquer that too

Dr Goh Kah Hong, the head consultant for psychological medicine at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said: “Younger children often lack the language to talk about their feelings and emotions. So when they are anxious or stressed out, they might act out more instead of telling you they are scared.”

“If you see that your child is being different from the usual self - having more temper tantrums or being withdrawn for example, it could be the stress getting to them.”


Being cooped up at home has made Jed more “whiny and needy”. “I think he’s bored and his routine is broken so his emotions tend to be thicker than usual,” said Ms Chia. 

Dr Koh Hwan Cui, the principal child development psychologist at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, explained: “Changes to routine can be difficult for children to cope with and may mean fewer opportunities for children to learn.”

Hence, drawing up a daily routine in half-hour or one-hour time slots is key to reassuring children. It is also important to involve them in choosing activities, especially four to six-year-olds. 

“You can let them choose when they want to do the tasks, who they want to do it with and how they want to do it. Be mindful to provide choices that are available to them,” said Dr Koh. 

“When implementing the schedule, show it to your child each time they start and end an activity.  You can also get them to tick off an activity once it is done so that they feel a sense of achievement as they complete the activities.” 

A sample daily schedule for a three-year-old. (Photo: KK Women's and Children's Hospital Facebook)

Dr Goh also recommended that parents keep to a familiar routine, such as consistent bedtimes and meal times. 

However, that may be easier said than done, especially when both parents are working from home. Mr Josiah Ng noticed that towards the end of the day, his four-year-old son Tyler would get "very frustrated about everything for no reason”.

“We suspect it’s because he doesn’t nap much these days, compared to when he was in school where naps happen within 1pm to 2pm,” the 32-year-old said. “Both my wife and I are working from home so sometimes it’s a bit difficult to follow the usual nap schedule.”


Questions or conversations about outbreak developments will no doubt emerge at home and experts say the last thing to do is "shy away from the topic". 

“It may make your child feel more uncomfortable about the issue. Let them know that it is not unusual to feel worried, but it is important that we make sure the worry does not become unhelpful,” said Dr Koh. 

“Check with your child once every few days what they know, how they feel and questions that they have.” 

Both Mr Ng and Ms Chia found it useful to be honest about their own feelings towards COVID-19 when conversing with their children. 

“We don’t try and censor ourselves. Accepting it is okay to have emotions, that’s something we always tell our son as well, “ Mr Ng said. “It’s okay to feel afraid, it’s how you cope.”

READ: Lego sushi, artificial snow, obstacle courses - Parents get creative during the COVID-19 circuit breaker

Ms Chia added: “I’ll tell Jed how I feel about this whole virus situation, that I’m also very sad and very worried.”

“Whether or not they truly understand, it’s important to have this conversation with them so they know that we also feel this way and that it’s not just something that’s in their mind.” 

Dr Goh also advised parents to “take a supportive stance” when a child acts out and to “talk to them calmly”. 

“Children are very sensitive to adults’ emotions. In particular, parental anxiety is known to increase children’s anxiety as well,” he said.

“Often it helps to strike when the iron is cold. Talk about things when they are calm instead when they are having a meltdown. It is a trying time for everyone, make allowance for kids to express their frustration, give them space if they need it.”


Parents are getting creative in order to occupy their children as they go without school during the circuit breaker. But activities do not just keep children occupied, they also improve the kids' overall wellness. 

READ: "The need is stronger for someone else" - Singaporeans dip into government payouts to help others affected by COVID-19

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“The ability to play and have fun is a sign of health,” said Dr Goh. “Engaging them in age-appropriate games that involve a little physical energy helps to dissipate their energy.”

Participate in more activities together with the children as spending enough time with them helps them “develop a good sense of security", he added.

“Bond with them by reading, watching a show together or as simple as being around them. Research has shown that a small amount of ‘quality time’ does not replace ‘quantity time’.”

Mr Ng turned to making funny videos and sharing his experiences with Tyler on his Facebook page, The Socially Distanced Dad

“I come from a filmmaking background so I use this medium to express myself. This gives us moments where we can both have fun and take our mind off things,” he said.

These days, Ms Chia and her husband are finding little ways to create a sense of normalcy for Jed.  When he refuses to get up in the morning, his parents let him put on his school uniform and pretend he is going to school. His new “playground” can now be found in the comfort of his own home - he would stand at the door playing “shouting games” with other neighbours’ kids.

They may not see each other, but their voices are a reminder of their friendship and perhaps an echo of hope that things will get better soon. 

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Source: CNA/ct(hs)


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