Our children and youth are suffering. No one can escape the constant pressures of a worldwide pandemic. Even infants and very young children who are unable to appreciate the meaning of a pandemic are physiologically exposed to the societal stresses and the experience of seeing people masked and shielded from each other.
As a psychotherapist and the Clinical Director of a children’s mental health service, my colleagues and I are hearing more and more reports of children and youth developing behaviours like skin picking, self harming, hair pulling, nail biting, pacing, rocking, changed eating habits, and head banging. Reports of collapsed behaviours like the inability to get out of bed, binging on screens, school refusal, and rejecting participation in the routines of family life like shared meals or outdoor activities. Many children and youth are complaining of increased stomach aches, headaches, and pains that have no known cause.
Relationally, families are reporting “not recognizing” their children, increased emotional reactivity, shame in extreme proportions, irrationality, and an inability to see a future. The social climate for our children can be challenging at the best of times as they navigate the developmental hurdles of creating safe and connected friendships. The current reality, when you can’t see each other’s faces, share down time together, or participate in passions together creates astronomical hurdles to social skill development.
Many children and youth are unable to imagine a life wherein they live in a social system that embraces and celebrates diversity, where the earth is not in a state of climate disaster, and that they are not experiencing social limitations of a worldwide pandemic.
Many have lost hope for change.
As a soon to be 56-year-old woman I too have experienced many of these feelings and behaviours over this past year. The difference though, is that I have my 20’s, 30’s, and my 40’s to remember. I have lots of experiences logged into my system wherein I got to know my self, experience novelty, travel, hang out. I can visit those memories and relive the nuggets of bliss experienced. Even my bad decisions and mistakes are there for me to bask in how they served me and my developing sense of self.
At my age, time is experienced very differently than it is for a child. Waiting for my 5th birthday party was unbearable. It felt like “forever!”. Now, an anticipated event for me is fraught with fears of “not enough time”. I can’t remember the last time I felt that childhood sense of “I can’t wait!”.
If you are 4 years old right now, you have lived a quarter of your life in the stress of seeing your community masked and at a distance. A 16-year-old in 2021 has just spent 1/16 of their life in a version of captivity and solitary confinement that drives wild animals mad. We are a social animal designed to connect, to seek out community, to be curious and experimental, to take risks. Deprived of the ability to exercise our nature we become frustrated, irritable and not at our best. These are the experiences of living in a pandemic, the symptoms of worldwide stress for over a year, not character flaws or indications of severe mental illness. It is not ideal mental health for sure. No one has that in a pandemic.
I share these reflections not as a doomsday report or to fear monger but to engage compassion, patience, and acceptance for how our children and youth are presently faring. They are not choosing these feelings or behaviours. Their nervous systems are leading them into reactive states of stress. It doesn’t make immediate sense to those around them or even to themselves. They can’t answer our questions of why they did something, nor can they “calm down” on demand. They can’t always engage their thinking brain to explain, predict, or consider alternatives. They are just as flummoxed by what is happening within them as their adults are of their behaviour.
Children and youth have limited life experience, they are 100% open to every sensation, experience, and worldwide event. Like sponges they absorb it all. Their young bodies don’t know where they end and the world begins. They are everything, and everything is them. This sense of having a “self” develops over time as we move through various stages of development and in conditions that are loving, respectful, and reciprocal.
At the moment, our young people are absorbing more than their bodies can bear. Even in family situations wherein everything on the whole is fairly normal – meaning income security, family health stability, and regular routines, there is no denying the social climate all around us. News reports, masked faces, school openings and closings, and all the limitations of social relationships will weigh heavily on young nervous systems. Their bodies are picking up cues of danger everywhere in their environments. The cues of safety that are available to them are often not enough to counter the unknown and the lack of control being experienced.
What to do??? How do we support our children and youth?
Most importantly patience, acceptance and a reduction of any judgements for reactions they may be having. They are not at their best because their world is not at its best. Their reactions are a part of them, but it is not who they are or who they will be in life.
Send loads and loads of cues of safety. Letting them know they are not alone, that they are loved, that they have a safe home base to return to regardless of how they reacted or what they did. That your love and support are not conditional on them being at their best. That you believe that they will figure things out and that you have faith in them and you have faith in the power of your relationship with them. Together, you got this!
Reduce fear as much as is possible. Given the state of the world fear is very reasonable and appropriate. However, our young people need to hear reassurances wherever and whenever possible. Let them know that despite current concerns we have survived a pandemic before, that people are generally good, that change is possible and that as a society we are moving in the right direction.
Maintain regular habits, routines, family rituals as best as is possible. At times we may not be able to create these experiences or our young folks may be rejecting of the experience. Creating a climate of acceptance and adaptability allows for conversations that help us to understand each other’s capacity and be responsive to each other’s needs. Keep talking and keep trying!
Most importantly, as adults in young people’s lives they need us to take care of ourselves. Our best hope to support young people is that as adults we model coping. Hiding our struggles and our fears is not helpful. Our young people know us better than we know ourselves.
They can feel our nervous systems even if our words and our behaviours are attempting to show something else. Better we make it clear to them the ways in which we are struggling and what we are doing to address it. Model self care, model self compassion, model struggling and coping, model leaning into other people for support. Most importantly, model how to repair relationships when we have not been our best selves and we have hurt the ones we love. They are 100% paying attention. What we do for ourselves and for others is setting the climate for our children.