Updated: Oct 28, 2021
Skip forward 20 years from now. Family story sessions will likely reminisce about a global pandemic and something called ‘lockdown’. Can you imagine the faces of the next generation when they are told tales of days when school was forced to close, and people weren’t allowed to leave their houses? Of times when planes weren’t allowed to fly and a trip to the supermarket involved lengthy queues outside and competitions for toilet roll. About the time that no one was allowed to see their friends and had to keep a ‘social’ distance from those they love? It doesn’t seem possible does it – but they are the stories that will be shared and relived.
I wonder though – what are the stories that are unfolding now? How are young minds coping with the aftermath of a lockdown and an ongoing global pandemic?
“I hate being back at school. I like my house. School just isn’t very nice." E, age 9.
“I miss my mummy when I’m at school. I don’t like going, I just want to be with her and sometimes I hide in the playground so I don’t have to go into the classroom.”
H, age 7.
“The pressure of the exams is really getting to me. I feel like I have missed so much, and I don’t want to mess up. We can’t even sit all of the papers because some of the stuff we haven’t even learnt.” T, age 16.
“I’m not really enjoying being with my friends. I don’t like going out to crowded places with lots of people and I hate how I look.” H, aged 11.
These are all words that have been spoken by children I work alongside. Children who are finding it a challenge to make sense of a world that has been ravaged by Covid. Of course, society has always experienced ups and downs and there are always stresses to contend with. It’s also true to say that in some cases, the children who come through the door at the wellbeing space may have needed support for reasons that are entirely separate from lockdown. But do I think it’s both fair and accurate to say that Covid and lockdown have heightened mental health and wellbeing issues? Absolutely!
My experiences with young people here at the cabin seem to correlate with the latest NHS research too. Take a look at these snapshots below;
It’s clear, from this research and multiple other sources, that we are heading down a very slippery slope and that children need support. There will be those who say young people need to get a grip, that they don’t know what pressure and stress is and that they simply need to toughen up.
But, as the evidence shows, children are struggling. In addition to the NHS research, a report by the British Journal of Psychiatry released in February 2021 showed that 7% of young people have attempted suicide by the age of 17 and 24% have self-harmed.
The mental health and wellbeing of our future generation is at crisis point. There’s ongoing research into the reasons for these numbers being so high but contributing factors are likely to include social deprivation, the influence of social media and academic pressures.
As time ticks on, the fear is that the impact of the pandemic is truly seen and these
numbers will only increase.
With Halloween just a couple of days away, and the clocks about to change, Winter is well on its way, and that is accompanied by talk of more lockdowns. There are daily updates on TV debating whether or not England will be plunged back into tighter restrictions and if I had £1 for every time I’d been asked by a child, “Kelly, do you think we will have another lockdown?” then I’d be able to buy that gorgeous pair of boots I’ve been admiring from a distance.
I don’t have the answer as to whether or not restrictions will reappear, but for the sake of the nation’s mental health, (and I say that while considering both adults and children), I really hope not.
Growing up is a tough job. There’s pressure from peers, decisions to be made about the future, social media expectations, family dynamics, academic work, relationships, a desire to fit in, body insecurities... the list goes on. So, in these uncertain times, how can we as parents, caregivers and champions of children’s mental health support the young people around us, especially at a time when so many appear to be dealing with anxiety, overwhelm and confidence issues?
Even though we are half a term in, school days may seem like long days. Children will have been learning, interacting and trying, so on the return home, they may benefit from quiet time, helping their brain to regulate and relax. Why not co-create a box especially for your child? You could include their favourite pair of fluffy socks, their much-loved cuddly toy, colouring pens and lego bricks. Think about encouraging unstructured play and creativity. Allow them time to get through the door and check in with their basic needs – are they hungry or thirsty? Do they need to get changed or would they like a hug? Then ask if they would like space to explore their box and provide reassurance that you are there should they need anything or want you to join in.
If a child has missed you and struggles being away from you, make a plan for the end of the day. Perhaps consider taking away some of the after-school structure and focus on fun. Bake, play, take a walk, cuddle up with a hot chocolate; do something together that means you are there alongside them and emotionally available should they want to communicate.
Try and resist asking questions about their day. Instead follow their lead and fully engage in the activity. As you both settle into your time together you could drop in words such as, “I’m here to listen if there is anything you’d like to share about your day” and “I love spending time with you.”
Show that you are human. Open lines of communication and tell them about challenges during your day, using age appropriate language and details. Children need to know that it's ok if things don't always go according to plan, or if they make mistakes. Share your coping strategies.
To support with confidence building, talk to children about the things that make them special and unique. Perhaps consider a family activity where you draw each other and note down all of the things that you love about one another. Try and focus on qualities – for example, kindness, helpfulness, creativity.
Spend time outdoors. Nature has a natural ability to build confidence as it encourages exploration and calculated risks. I know it’s getting cold but dig out the gloves and hats and go and play outside. Notice the leaves changing and listen to the crunchy leaves. Watch the sunrise or the sunset.
Challenge negative thoughts. Let children know that all thoughts and feelings are visitors and that we, as people, have the power to decide if a thought or feeling is allowed to stay. You could play a simple game with blueberries or chocolate. Get a jar or a bowl and ask children to consider how many negative thoughts they have. If they have 4 negative thoughts, then ask them to pop 4 blueberries into the bowl. Now ask them to pick the blueberries up, one at a time, saying their negative thought out load as they do. They can always eat the negative thought and physically get rid of it! Then, challenge them to replace their negative thought with a positive thought - support them in this if it seems hard. Represent the positive thought with a button/petal/chocolate/something of choice and pop that positive thought into the bowl. Reflect on how the child has moved negative thoughts away, and the bowl is now filled with positive thoughts.
Encourage reflection. Ask the child towards the end of everyday what went well for them today and what they feel they did well at. You could always create a chart so that you start to build a range of positive reflections.
When your child does something kind/helpful/thoughtful etc, provide feedback. “That was such a thoughtful thing to do, you have a very kind heart,” or “You tackled that in such a creative way, I wouldn’t have considered doing it like that.”
Responding to questions about this coming Winter
No one knows what will happen in the future; we don’t have a crystal ball, so try not to promise. Don’t promise that we won’t have another lockdown, or that we will!
Reflect back concerns, assuring children that you hear them and understand that they are worried. Acknowledge what lockdown was like for them and remind them that no matter what happens they are not alone – you are in this together. Try and encourage mindfulness – take one day at a time and focus on being present.
It may seem like all is lost for today’s young generation – but that’s not the case at all! Children tend to have a huge degree of resilience and adaptability, and actually living through something as unusual as the pandemic is perfect for helping to establish that ability to bounce back. Coming out of the other side proves that tough and challenging situations can be conquered. Lockdown has had many other benefits too including;
Reconnecting with nature
Building family connections
Embracing a slower pace of life
Re-evaluating what’s really important
An abundance of free time and play.
The downside is that it’s clear that the wellbeing and emotional health of the future generation needs a great deal of TLC. It needs to be taken seriously. It needs investment. It needs to be talked about and it needs to be high up on society’s agenda. For now, I can’t help but feel that the balance needs to be addressed and the focus needs to be on providing an accessible emotional education, in addition to the traditional academic learnings. What do you think?