None of us could ever have predicted the course of life the last two years. It has been a huge wakeup call for many but sadly, not in the way it should have been. It’s been a time where resilience has been called upon more times than anyone ever imagined, especially for the younger generation and it has taken it’s toll massively.
Relentless and unsustainable
It has been in the news this week that in the UK (England and Wales) alone, over 420,000 children and young people are being treated in the NHS for mental health issues. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exacerbated anxiety disorders, depression and even self-harm in school-age children with an increase of 147,853 children needing treatment or are waiting to undergo care since February 2020, an increase of 54%. 80,096 in the last year alone counting for 24% of the increase. This is the highest number since records began in 2016 according to NHS figures.
Mental health charities have stated that there has also been an all-time high in numbers of children who are receiving psychological support but they fear that the figures stated are just the tip of the iceberg of the true number of people who need care and that many more under 18s are being denied care due to eligibility criteria. CAHMS have been turning many cases away as their symptoms were not seen as ‘severe enough’.
The NSPCC have stated on their website that there were over 200,000 counselling session carried out by Childline for children and young people last year. Over 5,600 of those calls about mental health was for children under the age of eleven. Mental or emotional health was the top concern for young people contacting Childline in 2020/21.
Cause for concern
As much as I can wholeheartedly understand why COVID-19 has been an impacting factor to the increase of mental health issues in children and young people I don’t personally feel it is the root cause. The isolation that has been experienced, disruption to education and the reduced access to support from teachers, GPs and specialist will of course have had played its part however these are factors of life, granted they have been experienced in an extreme level in the last two years.
We also live in an age where bullying is reaching an all-time high as it is everywhere you go. Days before social media, technology and the internet, if you were bullied in school it stayed there however now you are targeted all the time on “Whatsapp”, “Facebook”, “Snapchat”. “Tiktok” and even “Instagram” to continue the torment and pain and that can make you feel like there is no where that is safe. That incessant haranguing can make you feel trapped and it seems like there is no way out.
Social media is also a breeding ground for diet culture and allows constant comparison for young and impressionable people.
Society and the media have a lot to answer for in regards to mental health. Everything is changing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up and even with the best of intentions there are times where you’re told you’re being offensive or that you don’t know what you’re talking about. The pressure to merely exist these days is enough to shatter a person’s mental health never mind when you’re a child or young person who is just starting out their journey on making sense of themselves and the world.
It is not a case that these factors aren’t valid or important because they very much are, but what if we took a different view point and instead of passing blame to the pandemic or other outlets and factors we started to get curious about understanding mental health better and how we can maintain it as well as paid attention to the interactions between ourselves and the young people in our lives?
After all we don’t have babies, we have people.
A lot of time we think we’re doing the right thing by telling someone who is struggling or having a bad day, phrases like, “Hey, don’t be sad, it’ll be okay” or “Don’t cry, think positive thoughts”. As much as this might not be said in a malicious way they are actually really harmful for people’s mental health as it invalidates not only how they feel but also stunts them from fully benefitting from the authentic human emotional experience. It is deemed as ‘Toxic Positivity’ and it is now recognised as a form of gaslighting. Toxic Positivity is the overgeneralisation of a happy and positive state of mind that denies real, negative emotions.
Although it may not seem unhealthy, this form of communication can actually cause a lot of shame, guilt, embarrassment and prevent emotional growth.
Here’s a personal example.
I dropped my youngest son off today to go on his first ever ‘school trip’. He is in the transitional phase right now of graduating nursery and headed for the first year of primary school. As part of this transition the nursery and school have planned a trip for the pre-schoolers and current P1 classes to go on an excursion together.
My son was of course excited about this but understandably had concerns and worries about it. He has never been on an outing without his parents, he’s never been on a coach journey before and in his four-year-old mind a forty-five-minute trip is a very, very long way from the safety he knows. We discussed it at home and he said he was upset because he’d miss us and he felt like it was going to be very scary being that far away without his parents.
I totally understood his feelings and I told him it was absolutely okay to feel these things and I remember feeling the same things when I was young too. It’s a natural thing to have these kinds of feelings about something you’ve never experienced before and we also talked about how missing us is actually a positive thing as it shows how much he loves us and so even though the feelings of missing someone can be difficult and upsetting the meaning is actually very nice. We then focused on the good things about the experience and how to overcome the things he was unsure of.
He started to get a little nervous waiting in the line to be dropped off and the member of staff at the door said “Good morning, how are you?” I told her he was excited about his trip but he was a bit nervous too.
Her response was this;
“Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine. Let’s get you in”.
This is coming from a pre-school educator. It was an invalidation of his feelings, it will probably make him feel more upset because now he’s been told he’s being silly for having these feelings and he’s also probably going to start shutting off from telling anyone else if he is feeling these things because he doesn’t want to be shot down again. Dismissive comments can be the start of the “I’m fine” response.
A new approach
Children and young people need to learn early on in life how to face their problems as well as how to cope with their emotions and toxic positivity can lead to them not being able to do so. It can instead make them close up and hide their true feelings because they don’t believe their feelings have worth or value.
There have been so many campaigns for mental health where the message is “It’s okay to not be okay” but I wonder how many people truly understand this phrase. Nobody can be happy or positive all the time and being told to be something you can’t be in your lowest times is more damaging than anything else.
It is scientifically proven that the average person has between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts in a day, of which around 80% are negative and 95% repetitive. Ergo, why is the focus always on diminishing negative thoughts instead of learning to sit with them, process them and grow from them? This constant societal need to label everything “good” or “bad” is such a hindrance on the human emotional process. Not all positive thoughts are good and not all negative ones are bad. Some thoughts on both sides might not even really be true. A negative thought has the power to show you where there is work to be done or give you a sign that a particular situation or route isn’t working for you which in turn is a positive thing.
The 90 Second Rule
Dr Jill Bolte Taylor in her book “My Stroke of Insight” describes what she calls the “90 Second Rule”.
“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
She talks about how in a situation that triggers an emotional response, whether it be a rude comment, bad news or unexpected inconvenience we lose our temper and states that this is because we don’t possess the impulse control or we’re not aware of another way to react.
Perhaps then this is more evidence why we should be exploring how to maintain our children’s mental health effectively.
Winds of change
I know the challenges that come with parenting. The anxiety of not knowing if you’re doing right by your child but all you can do is what you feel is the best thing in that situation and hope that they will understand in years to come. I have two sons, my eldest as I’ve said before, is neurodivergent and I’ve always been very open about how challenging it has been and can be but also just how amazing his mind and heart is.
I could tell the other week he was feeling anxious or worried about something so I asked him to talk to me privately in my bedroom. I do this for everyone in my home, if there is an issue I ask them if they want to talk, who they want to talk to and if they want privacy to talk.
He said he wanted to talk to me but I could tell he was hesitant. Long story short, he confided in me that his head can make him think all of these negative thoughts, some that at the age of six are increasingly dark and worrying but it comes along with ASD and ADHD. Instead of shooting him down, I validated it because no matter the age of a person I can’t deny him of his thoughts or feelings, I can’t possibly know what it is like to be in his head. I told him it was absolutely okay that he had negative thoughts what matters more is how we work through it. I try my hardest to practice ‘gentle parenting’ and I see my children as actual people, they aren’t just 4 or 6 because that is only today, one day they will be 24 and 26 and beyond and they will be trying to navigate their lives with other people in them. It is my job to make sure they know how to self-regulate, to know their worth and to know how to show and receive compassion, kindness and respect.
He told me that his thoughts sometimes tell him not to say anything when he’s feeling anxious or worried. I told him that we can’t always trust our thoughts because the mind’s job is to think and our thoughts aren’t always our own nor are our thoughts always something to dwell on we can sometimes just acknowledge the thought and then let it pass by like a cloud in the sky. I am a big believer in being open and honest in a suitable way with my children, I’m always as careful as possible of the words I choose and if I make a mistake in the way I’m trying to explain something I will stop and correct myself. I told him that I have those negative thoughts too sometimes and they can be upsetting and they can be scary but instead of listening fully to those thoughts as gospel, approach them with curiosity instead and start questioning:
Is this true?
Is this my feelings or someone else’s?
Can I see this in a different way?
This can make all the difference and it allows a child to learn how to process their feelings and self-regulate in their early years.
Maintenance is key
Learning how to maintain our mental health is something that not many people take the time to understand or do. It is different for everyone and we all have varying levels of needs depending on our mental health difficulties and the environments in our lives.
Self-care can take a lot of forms from taking care of ourselves, reading a book, ‘dating’ ourselves, buying ourselves flowers or gifts to making sure we are putting boundaries in place and healing from issues without projecting onto others.
Talking and spending time with your children can be a huge step in helping them maintain their mental health. Introducing them to journaling or improving your communication together by doing a joint journal that can allow you both to have your say in a calm and controlled way can really help your relationship too as well as give them a healthy way of regulating themselves.
Place2Be is a great website with so much information and ideas to help your child or young person with their mental health and support the care giver as well.
You are not alone
Life is hard and so is parenting, there is no perfect parent or child and that is something I think we forget on both sides of the coin. We strive for perfection when we know it’s unattainable however we can sometimes project that need for perfection onto our children and we miss the fact that they are still learning, they aren’t acting like adults because they aren’t adult yet.
All I think we can do is really listen when our children talk, hear what they feel, not hear what they say. In those moments where they are having a breakdown on aisle 4 of the supermarket and all the judgemental people around death stare you down, instead of just thinking “You are being an absolute embarrassment, this is a nightmare” and get annoyed that they aren’t behaving how you want them to, take ten seconds and remind yourself you aren’t dealing with another adult. It’s a little person and they are probably overwhelmed and over stimulated and just trying to make sense of their day, or process difficult emotions. Try taking them to the side and have a quick conversation, ask questions. They may be little people but they understand and pick up on way more than you think. Showing them compassion and curiosity at the most difficult times is the biggest challenge but one that makes all the difference.
Love hard. Be fierce. Horns high.