The kids are not all right
Arguably, our children are suffering the most right now. Research evidence seems to support this with child mental-health difficulties increasing, particularly in respect to anxiety and depression.
There are a few reasons why we should be especially mindful of children and how they are coping. First, that they have all of the suffering but less of the resilience. Children’s brains aren’t fully developed — our brains aren’t fully developed until 25 or so — and so they don’t have the same emotional resilience as adults.
While adults rely more heavily on the prefrontal cortex (the rational, planning part of the brain) for problem solving, teens process information with the amygdala (the emotion centre of the brain). They may not be “thinking” as much as they are “feeling”.
Developmentally, children benefit from being social. Social interactions and play is the classroom of life, as it were. They learn to negotiate, understand others, empathise, be compassionate, assert themselves and discover who they are. When they are out of social situations for any protracted period, these moments are lost. Aside from that, we all need social interaction, and a lack of contact and connection leaves children isolated and lonely. Teens, in particular, are developmentally going through a stage of developing separation and independence. Restrictions on their activities hugely hamper this transition.
For some of our children, these are important years. As an adult, we can be fortunate, if you will, that our years become quite similar and plateaued. One or two years of disruption may be unsettling and frustrating, but not that impactful overall. For children, they might be in academic years that have ramifications for their future. For some, they are managing a pandemic while also studying for the most important examinations of their life. Or, it might be their first year at university, and they are at home studying in their bedroom — no student bar, no parties, no bonding. For some children, it isn’t just any year, it is a memorable, impactful or sentimental year. A year they will not be getting back.
As a parent, it is helpful to observe changes in your child. This may be more obvious changes in mood such as depression, anxiety or irritability, but could be more subtle, such as changes in sleep, appetite, motivation and enjoyment. Hard to spot in a teen, but keep an eye out for withdrawal and any secretive behaviour. Self-destructive behaviours such as substance use, self-harm and suicidal thoughts are especially concerning and likely warrant professional support.
For older children, although the urge may be to problem-solve for your child or reassure them, try to ask open questions and provide spaces where they can just think things through with you. Consider yourself a sounding board first, and maybe advice-giver as secondary to this. The more non-judgmental and open you can be, the more you invite them to engage with you. Validating and normalising are also likely to be helpful. Bear in mind that often as a parent, despite being a wonderful and supportive carer, teens just think you are the last person in the world they want to talk to. If that is the case, encourage your child to talk to supportive, wise adults — either in your family and community or professionally.
Younger children may benefit from more explanation and reassurance. Again, give your child the opportunity to ask questions. Using play and games to talk about what is going on may make information more accessible and less frightening. For younger children, be mindful of how adults in the home express their anxiety and stress.
We think about children being resilient, and they often are, but let’s not underestimate their struggles.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor