Parents too need a “time out” during COVID-19, says a trauma psychologist

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

By Wossen Mulatu
Tigist Waltenegus is a mother of three and a well accomplished trauma psychologist who has served in this profession for the last 12 years.
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mopix
19 May 2020

Tigist Waltenegus is a mother of three and a well accomplished trauma psychologist who has served in this profession for the last 12 years. Trauma psychology is a type of mental health treatment that counselors use to help people overcome a psychological trauma or pain that needs to be addressed.

“The most gratifying part of my job is to see trauma transformed into a story,” she says. “People cannot forget what happened to them, but they can let go of the pain. To be part of such a meaningful process and change is very rewarding.”

Due to COVID-19, Tigist is working mostly online and using the time to be with her family at home.

“We as parents used to complain that we were too busy to be with our families. There is no excuse now. We should use this time to be with our families, discuss and debate, plan activities together and set the house rules. It’s also a time to nurture our children not only with nutritious food but also psychosocial care and support. As for me, I breastfeed my three-month old baby without any interruption, which is a great example to other breastfeeding mothers as well.”

As distressing as it is to humanity, COVID-19 has also brought about a golden opportunity to correct what has gone wrong in family life and make amends.

“Undoubtedly, the virus is economically hurting, and social distancing is worrying knowing how people value their social life. However, it has rewarded us with the gift of time.”

With schools closed, most people think children are missing out only on their education but that is not the whole story. They have also been deprived of social life including playing with friends.

Tigist says there are parents who are struggling with emotional instability induced by stress, depression and a volatile temperament during this period and are facing difficulties in how to relate with their children.

“Sometimes I get phone calls from parents who are desperately looking for advice. They complain that their children are not listening to them even after they repeatedly tell them what not to do. In Amharic, we say ‘tew tey tew tey’ which means stop doing this and that repeatedly and it goes on and on.”

In these circumstances, she believes that parents need a ‘time out’.

“I feel that it helps to listen to their body and to have something to distract them. If they are exhausted, they shouldn’t be in denial and think that they are always on top of things. They shouldn’t feel they have the right to beat and shout at their children as they please. After they calm down and regain their energy, they can look at the situation differently and stop themselves from physically or verbally hurting their children.

“Sometimes it feels as if a creature as big as a dinosaur is looking down and yelling at a creature as small as an ant. We need to understand that our physical presence and voice is already too big for children’s brains. If we don’t control ourselves, we might force them into a fight, flight, or freeze situation.

“On the other hand, we need to understand that children take after their family. Children are a reflection of their parents and, in most instances, imitate what they see. Instead of telling them repeatedly to do this and that, parents need to lead by example by doing it themselves.

As a trauma psychologist who has seen so many cases of violence, Tigist is concerned for the safety of children during this time.

Safety is a major concern for children who are at risk of violence at home or outside. If the violence is triggered by economic pressure, it may stop when financial support is provided. However, the worst form of violence for me is sexual violence which requires utmost attention.

“I have seen many cases where children are sexually abused by close family members including fathers. Due to poor living conditions and lack of space, it makes it worse that the whole family is forced to sleep together. I have seen mothers keep quiet about it; some even give up their eldest daughter to be abused by the father in order to protect the rest of the children, to keep the marriage, or to safeguard their economic wellbeing. However, we need to find ways to protect these children and to provide them safe spaces and shelter.”

Tigist says if people are undergoing depression during this time, not only can they seek modern options such as online counselling, they can also opt for traditional options such as talking to a religious leader who can help them through their problems.

Tigist offers the following tips to parents and caregivers:


  1. Create a new “routine and ritual” at home to keep life ‘normal’. As a trauma specialist, Tigist says she has seen that traumatized people lack routine and ritual in their lives. Therefore, they need to create a routine filled with activities for the day and a ritual that the family can do together to bring about a sense of normalcy.
  2. Storytelling is the best way to teach children about the coronavirus. Terms such as “virus” or “mask” can be difficult to explain especially to smaller children. However, a personalized story of a girl or a boy will do the job. If you can tell stories of monsters and magic, it shouldn’t be difficult to create one on handwashing. For bigger children, you can relate it to their dreams and future. (Editor’s note: for more information on how to talk to your children about COVID-19, please refer to How-talk-your-child-about-coronavirus-covid-19 and My hero is you, a fictional book developed by and for children to help children understand and cope with COVID-19).
  3. Listen to children attentively. In many traditional societies, children are seen as part of the furniture in the house and are given value, but they are not allowed to talk or give their opinions. You should be concerned when your children silently look at the ceiling as you talk to them. It’s because you haven’t created trust and face-to-face dialogue from an early age, so your children don’t know how to talk to you.  
  4. Touch is healing. Hold your children close and give them affection.
  5. Breathing exercises help children to calm down. They help them to learn to control their emotions as children but will also be useful when they reach adulthood.
  6. Read your children’s body language. When children are stressed, they won’t tell you, but they will show you. They can become hyperactive, silent, talk too much, cry often, or show other emotions. You need to understand their body language and explore what they are going through.
  7. Let children participate in setting up house rules. COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to discuss and set the rules of the house together. When children participate in the discussions and give their consent, even punishment becomes easier because they will already have agreed to it.
  8. Play is a big part of children’s lives. Devote at least 30 minutes of your time every day to play with your children.
  9. Parenting dynamics must change depending on the age of the children. You cannot treat a 7-year-old and a 14-year-old child the same way. For teenagers (aged 13-19 years), you need to give them space to do things independently. You need to create activities for them depending on their interests and give them bigger responsibilities to become team leaders for your younger children. At this stage, they want to be leaders, not followers. You need to give them privacy and leave them to explore while controlling the wider environment. (Editor’s note: Refer to Parenting tips for COVID-19 for more information).

Tigist, cheerful and compassionate, is enthusiastic about the potential of her work and that of fellow psychologists to positively impact lives during COVID-19, especially of women and children.

“I remember when I started working as a psychologist and we opened an office for three, people were laughing at us and mistook us for palm readers. It was only after we started a radio programme that people started to understand our work and became more willing to share their stories and seek advice. Currently, I’m proud to say, we have thousands of walk-in clients who come seeking support. It’s overwhelming in a good way,” she says.