Are The Kids Alright?

Filipino Children, Adolescents Grapple with Decreased Socialization

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, eight-year-old Ysabelle Bersamina’s routine included going to school and bonding with her younger brother, Alonzo, and their cousins who frequently visited their home in Las Piñas City, south of Manila.

On weekends, their family was used to visiting malls and enjoying more leisure time.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared and the entire Philippines was placed under lockdown in March 2020, the government forced children to stay at home and schools were ordered to close.

This turned Ysabelle’s daily routine and her mode of learning upside down.

She missed interacting with friends and teachers at school, as well as the weekly routine of going out for leisure time. Ysabelle also longed for relatives who could not visit her because of the lockdown. “The changes were drastic. With the sudden shift away from the classroom, Ysabelle had to adjust to module learning, which was unfamiliar to her,” Kristine Bersamina, Ysabelle’s single mother, said in an online interview.

The single mum took on the new challenging role of becoming Ysabelle’s teacher while also working.

“The pandemic did not only affect the kids but the entire household,” she said.

Kristine shared that more than a year into the lockdown, her daughter’s behaviour changed. Ysabelle sought more attention than before, but Kristine thought this was just normal until her daughter cried constantly for weeks in June 2021.

“Despite reassuring her that I was around, she would still cry nonstop. I tried all methods, showing my gentle and harsh sides but nothing worked. She would only sleep if she’d take the melatonin for kids I bought because I already felt helpless. I realized that I couldn’t take it anymore since it was also affecting my sanity,” Kristine said.

This prompted her to consult with a child psychiatrist who found that Ysabelle was suffering from panic attacks and prescribed her antidepressants, which she would take for months. The psychiatrist could not determine the root of the panic attacks because Ysabelle had difficulty expressing herself, but Kristine attributed it to the lockdown and lack of socialization.

UNICEF reported that at least one in seven children and young people lived under stay-at-home policies for most of 2020, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation.

UNICEF reported that at least one in seven children and young people lived under stay-at-home policies for most of 2020, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation.

Therefore, the Bersamina family is just one of the many families grappling with the adjustments brought about by the coronavirus lockdown.

Filipinos are known to be social and have close-knit ties with families, the mental health of several individuals including children and adolescents was affected when the lockdown was enforced.

What the studies say

In 2020, the United Nations annual World Happiness Report ranked the Philippines as the 52nd happiest country in the world out of 156 nations. This is 17 notches higher than the previous year.

The report, published annually by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, using data from the Gallup World Poll and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, reflects the level of happiness before COVID-19 hit or the year 2019.

It bases the ranking of a country’s happiness on variables such as gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption.

In its report released last March, however, the social-minded Philippines’ level of happiness for 2020, the onset of the pandemic, dropped by nine spots.

It said mental health is among the casualties of both the pandemic and the lockdowns.

“As the pandemic struck, there was a large and immediate decline in mental health in many countries worldwide,” it said.

“The early decline in mental health was higher in groups that already had more mental health problems – women, young people, and poorer people. It thus increased the existing inequalities in mental well-being,” the UN report added.

This was the similar to the findings of a study commissioned by Save the Children Philippines entitled “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing of Children and Adolescents in Selected Areas in Metro Manila” released last October 27.

The non-government-organization Psychosocial Support and Children’s Rights Resource Center (PSCRRC), which engages in psychosocial research support, conducted 126 in-depth mobile interviews with adolescents aged 13 to 18 and adult informants of children aged 6 to 12. This was to explore the children and adolescents’ various experiences in their family and household, social life, education, and physical and mental health.

The participants were randomly sampled from selected villages in Navotas, Malabon, and Pasay City and purposely sampled in Metro Manila’s largest city, Quezon City.

The report noted that decreased communication among friends was the most common social life stressor for both children and adolescents during the pandemic.

“Filipino families and children are afflicted or are experiencing a mental toll,” said Elizabeth Protacio-De Castro, Ph.D., former professor of psychology at the University of the Philippines, who led the project.

She cited anxiety caused by COVID-19, mounting stigma and exclusion towards those infected, limited connection due to community restrictions and economic recession as some of the mental health effects on children.

The study also found that it was beneficial for children and adolescents to keep an active social life, through communication via social media, gaming, and spending more time with neighbouring peers.

Similarly, the research found that mutual help was the top coping strategy for children and adolescents during the lockdown.

“Children tend to seek help from parents and other relatives for their modules, while adolescents are likely to seek help from their friends/classmates and teachers,” the study said.

The Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC), a non-profit group devoted to caring for child victims of human rights violations, shared the same views as the research results.

In an online interview, it said that the lack of productive activities has contributed to a worsening of the mental health condition of children.

“Isolation, confinement, and lack of physical socialization cause widespread mental health problems among children and families including depression and anxiety. Children face anxiety about the negative impact of the pandemic on their lives. They are uncertain about the future,” it said.

“Due to the lack of productive activities at home, children tend to spend more time on the internet wherein they sometimes experience cyber-bullying and also increased vulnerability to online sexual exploitation,” the organization added.

During the pandemic, CRC also noted that there was an increase in inquiries about mental health from their social media page.

It cited that some adults sought for help and asked for advice on how to manage behavioural changes in children during the lockdown. Some also asked if the CRC’s office was willing to accept their children because they were having difficulty handling them.

Helping hands

“The pandemic taught me not to downplay my kids’ emotions, that we should listen more to them because they rely on us physically and emotionally.”

To help alleviate the mental woes of children and young people, CRC partnered with organizations to conduct psychosocial intervention activities online and face-to-face.

They helped them process their experiences through games, arts, music and one-on-one or group-counselling.

“With the assessment of a social worker, referrals were also made for severe cases. For 2021, we partnered with other children’s rights organizations and conducted peer-to-peer training for children and young people. The participants themselves processed their experiences during the pandemic and were trained to become peer counsellors,” it added.

However, it said that providing counselling to children and adolescents with mental concerns through telemedicine has been difficult due to fluctuating internet connections and device limitations.

CRC said these hinder the continuity and effectiveness of the process.

Children’s mental health in the spotlight

One positive of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, was that it brought young people’s mental health issues to the fore.

The UN said the pandemic has shone a light on mental health as never before.

“This increased public awareness bodes well for future research and better services that are so urgently needed,” it said.

Parents likewise have become aware of the importance of well-being.

With this knowledge amid the pandemic, Facebook group Kids Are Allowed (KAA), with over 49,000 members, created an online community to help fellow parents navigate the pandemic and direct them to hangout places where children could go.

“Sharing secure and safe places where kids were allowed, enabled other kids to do freely what they liked doing before the pandemic — mingling with other kids but this time with precautions,” said Hershey, founder of KAA.

Even the government lobbied for the easing of restrictions to let children go out, citing that it was “good for their physical, social and mental health.”

And so, after 20 months in lockdown, the Philippine government finally lifted the travel ban on children in November 2021 and allowed them to explore outdoors in areas with low COVID-19 cases.

Intervention points

A group of psychology researchers PSCRRC agreed with this measure, citing that exploring interventions based on neighbourhood-based social ties were important.

“In the context of the pandemic, neighbourhood peers have proved to be robust and significantly beneficial to mental health and wellbeing,” it said.

The NGO advised parents, caregivers and guardians to indulge in awareness and build on children’s mental health capabilities.

It recommended the government provide training and modules on child stress and coping strategies, positive child-rearing practices, corporal punishment consequences, and mental health promotion even in a state of poverty.

For parents like Kristine, the COVID-19 pandemic made her realize the significance of children’s mental health and knowing how to provide the necessary support for their emotional and mental wellbeing.

“The pandemic taught me not to downplay my kids’ emotions, that we should listen more to them because they rely on us physically and emotionally,” Ysabelle’s mum said.

“We should help end the mental health stigma because home is the first place where our children should feel safe, loved and protected,” she concluded.

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Rosette Adel

Student, Master of Journalism, Ateneo De Manila University

Rosette Adel is an editor and journalist for Manila-based online newsrooms Interaksyon and Her work spans breaking news, investigative journalism, and mobile reporting about diverse issues in the Philippines, particularly tourism, heritage, and politics. Concurrently, she is a fellow of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation while pursuing her graduate studies at the Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University.

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