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Director of the Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center, prof. Gordana Buljan Flander was a guest in the show Everyday Life of Jabuka TV with the editor and host Dijana Predojević on May 12, 2020. The topic was the Commission for the Protection of Mental Health of Children and Youth of the City of Zagreb during and after the COVID-19 crisis, which was established on April 29, 2020 by the decision of Mayor Milan Bandić. Prof. Gordana Buljan Flander, PhD is the President of the Commission, and the tasks are: preparation and direction of activities for drafting proposals for mental health programs for children and youth of the City of Zagreb during and after COVID-19 health crisis, implementation, collection and evaluation of data and preventive interventions mental health and participation in monitoring the implementation of the program. Here are some highlights from what the director said, and you can watch the show in its entirety on the video link (on Croatian language):
“Due to the corona and earthquake, we can expect a large number of cases of mental health problems in both adults and children.”
– I think we can expect in a large number of cases of mental health problems in both adults and children. This isolation has also led many relationships to some changes. If parents are together 24 hours a day with children who are harder to raise, who are a little more lively, who are also under stress, all this required a lot of additional energy investment, investment in relationships so that parents actually stay within certain normal limits, especially if it is disturbed family dynamics. when we talk about domestic violence, some children even called, and said that they were not beaten only by one parent, but that the parents were so dissatisfied, so quarrelling, that in the end they were vent on me, says the child, “There is no one to protect me.” During this isolation, we started a campaign, “Behind closed doors”, which broke through the Croatian framework, where the Ministry of the Interior and the Degordian agency wanted to warn people, neighbors, all those who suspect that something is happening with children behind these closed doors, in terms of domestic violence, that they are obliged to react, to be the voice of those children. This campaign is excellent and some countries have taken it over, and the Council of Europe has also broadcast our campaign because it is not only in Croatia that increasing domestic violence during isolation is a problem. It is already known that in situations of quarantine and crisis, domestic violence increases and reporting decreases, because children and women do not dare to call because they are imprisoned with an abuser. Just because we have fewer reported cases, doesn’t mean we have less violence. On the contrary, it only means that the victims cannot seek help – said professor Gordana Buljan Flander.
Why did the parents call and ask for help the most during this period?
– Most parents in this period called about divorced, who did not have access to their children at the time of isolation. This is an opportunity for parents who are manipulative to use isolation as a reason not to give access to the child by the other parent. On the other hand, some parents wanted access to the child in a way to change the environment, to take him somewhere else, to their relatives, which again, of course, is not in the best interest of the child. Parents also called for advice, some parents called thinking we could make some decisions. We cannot make any decisions. Decisions are made by social welfare centers and courts. They also called parents whose children are anxious, scared, especially about the earthquake. Now that this story has started with the return to school, parents have called to ask what is best for the children. Of course, we cannot give advice on what is best for children, but we have supported parents in the sense that it is really difficult for them when they have to make a decision – said the director.
“In this situation of dividing children into those who go to school and have online classes, it is not easy to be neither a child nor a parent”
– I don’t think it’s fair to put the burden of the decision on the parents’ backs. I have worked with children and parents all my life, and I think that today in this situation it is not easy to be neither a child nor a parent. Parents often ask themselves, “Am I a good parent?” It is very easy to make every parent feel guilty. So now imagine a situation where a parent decides to send a child to school because they have to, and then something happens, what a sense of guilt it is. If a parent decides to leave the child at home because he is afraid of the virus, then the child says “why can’t I hang out with friends!”, And that parent may feel guilty. Can parents even make a decision based on this contradictory, different and insufficient information? Can they actually decide responsibly and competently at all? I find that I really can’t and that by increasing it, we add stress to the already existing stress of the parents; we add stress to pre-existing stress in children; we add stress to pre-existing stress in teachers. And parents and teachers should be supportive of the child. But, if I am under stress, then my support capacities are smaller, so I really think that it is not easy for parents today and that they need support to understand that whatever they decide in a situation like this, they are not guilty or responsible. Parents have a duty to send their children to school, but the state or the ministry and institutions must provide the conditions for that school. Recommendations and instructions must be unambiguous, defined in advance and clear – said professor Gordana Buljan Flander.
How to explain to a child why he or she is going or not going to school?
– If the child asks “why am I going to school and my friend is not going”, or “if I am not going, why is my friend going”, the child should be honestly and clearly explained “you have to go because mom and dad have to work”. Because, what’s the problem? There is an illusion of the normality of the situation, and the situation is not normal. It would be normal for all children to go to school and for everyone to study according to the same program. So, with children we need to be really honest, as far as the child can understand, without going into too much detail, and not that the child thinks he/she is wrong and responsible or less valuable, so he/she has to go to school for something and the other does not have to. It should be explained to the children that it has nothing to do with them, that there are such rules, that it has been so decided, that these parents have to work and the others do not have to work. So as much as the child can understand. It is very important that the child can ask questions and that we give him/her clear answers. It is equally important to ask the child, “How do you feel about this?” and “What do you know about the virus?” Prepare children how to protect themselves and to listen to the rules, reward when the child obeyed the rules, when he/she washed hands, when he/she was away from his/her colleagues at school. Reward by giving children support in this behavior, not to think that we are punishing them by not being allowed to socialize, not to come close, so prepare them in such a way that we can then make it easier for teachers to maintain discipline and distance in school – advises professor Gordana Buljan Flander.
“We kept telling the parents who called us, ‘Hold on, and this will pass.’
– What is not clear to me in the whole story is how most children will finish online classes, and these children who go to school work according to some other system. Every child has the right to the same manner and form of education as all other children. It is very difficult to explain this to children, when it is not clear to us. When I talk about this, I always think about how it is for parents. They were in isolation, they were worried about their jobs, financial problems, they were worried about their children, they were locked up with the children, the children have a natural need to move… They had to take care of those children, back and we add to that stress. I don’t think that’s okay with parents and it shouldn’t be the responsibility of parents. We kept telling the parents who called us, “Keep in mind that this will pass, too. Hold on, and this will pass.” I would bow to all parents in this situation, because they had to work from home and be with the children and follow the online classes with them, and be their support, and it really wasn’t an easy time, and yet this getting used to the new normal. It is still not an easy time, and I really think we need to give them a validation – said professor Gordana Buljan Flander.
Disclaimer: This is unofficial translation provided for information purposes. Zagreb Child and Youth Protection Center cannot be held legally responsible for any translation inaccuracy.