Please don’t forget about kids’ mental health

I’m concerned about our kids.

I’m concerned about them going back to school.

I’m concerned about them not going back to school.

Many of us as adults have lost a lot over the last few months – social gatherings, working alongside colleagues, working out, eating at restaurants, etc. While this loss still feels heavy, I’m able to do a workout over zoom. I can work from home. I can get takeout or eat outside at my favorite restaurant. I can even have a socially distant lunch, sitting in a parking lot with a friend.

Kids, however, have lost just about everything, and in the blink of an eye, and there’s really no plan for them to get it back anytime soon, not fully anyway. Their lives were changed instantly, and most of them lack the brainpower to really understand it.  And if they do understand it some, it’s usually clouded in the fear and anxiety that adults shared it with.

Kids lost their teachers without being able to say goodbye. They lost their friends, and many haven’t seen them again. They lost their activities, and if they’ve been able to return to it, there are so many restrictions and safety measures that it’s almost not even fun anymore. They lost grandparents, either to the virus or because they’re not able to see them anymore to keep them safe.

I talked in this post about how children need control more than just about anything, and it’s usually hard to find ways to give them that. But right now, it feels like none of us have control over anything, so some kids are feeling even more out of control and dysregulated, while adults struggle to find ways to help them, because so many of us are struggling at the same time.

So please don’t forget about kids’ mental health. So many of the conversations about education in the Fall talk about kids’ education needs, parents’ need to go back to work, safety of kids and teachers, etc. And I believe that all of those things are extremely important and need to be discussed. But please, please don’t forget about kids’ mental health. The stigma attached to that term (mental health) often makes people recoil when it’s mentioned, and parents don’t want to believe their kids have mental health needs or concerns. People hear mental health and go to the extreme – so depressed they can’t get out of bed, panic attacks, hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, and more. Yes, those are part of mental health, and a real part of mental health for kids, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the day to day mental wellness of our children, and how they’re able to process all of the changes and disruptions that have become our new normal.

The type of mental health I’m thinking of relates more to anxiet, fear, confusion, sadness, and more. Kids are absorbing a lot of information during this time, from parents, grandparents, news, etc. They’re listening even when we think they’re not. Many adults aren’t necessarily having conversations with kids about what’s going on, so if they’re hearing information without reassurance, it can create a lot of anxiety and fear. It’s also easy as adults and parents to discount our children’s reactions and fears, because they don’t rise to the level of trying to make ends meet, fear about elderly parents, or the potential loss of a job. Our worries cannot and should not be kids’ worries. But the worries kids have our incredibly big to them, and the loss they have experienced is impacting them on a regular basis.

So as we start to consider the mental health of our kids, here are a few things to think about:

If kids go to school and have to wear masks – what kind of fear might that elicit? How do we talk to them about it, so they understand the importance without it scaring them? What about kids who have “cool” masks but other kids can’t afford them, so they have a plain mask provided by the school?

If kids go back to school but can’t get near other people– how do we teach them to still connect with people from a distance? Their social skills are already questionable at times, so how do we now introduce this new way of interacting? What about the kids who crave physical touch because they aren’t getting any at home? How do teachers learn new ways to engage and connect with their students when they can’t get close to them?

What if someone gets sick? How do we make sure others don’t make fun of or ostracize that person? How do they return without a sense of fear once everyone is deemed safe and well again? For kids who crave routine and structure, how will they adjust to the back and forth of virtual learning as classmates and teachers get infected?

What about the kids who are already behind? Research has made it very clear that poor kids are already academically and developmentally behind their peers, so if kids are only in the building half the time, how can we possibly keep that gap from widening? And if the only students who attend school in person are the ones whose families don’t have any other options, what messages does that send? What will that be like for those kids and the teachers?

And just in case you’re wondering, my concern does not only apply to younger kids. We have kids entering high school, which can be such a scary, uncertain time normally, who maybe have never been inside the building. Who weren’t able to take a tour or meet their teacher. Who might be trying to navigate the new academic demands high school brings without the social support of friends and peers.

There are older kids going to college, who never fully got to say goodbye to high school. They didn’t have prom, or graduation, or a last day of school. They’re starting this new chapter, when adulthood is supposedly beginning, but now they may have to keep living at home because they can’t stay on campus. Some of them didn’t get those last few skills we hope are taught in high school that will prepare them to start this new chapter. And how will they develop the skills typical of a college student if they don’t have the same opportunities and experiences.

And now let’s consider some of the concerns impacting mental health if school doesn’t return to in person instruction in the Fall:

Since the time the pandemic began and states shut down and schools closed, experts fear that episodes of domestic violence and child abuse have dramatically increased, as families are spending more time together and stress levels are heightened due to job loss, economic difficulties, and lack of social supports and activities.  Growing up in a household with domestic violence is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience, which can bring with it many negative outcomes and experiences as children age. Children who remain at home in this type of environment will continue to experience the stress associated with living in fear. Additionally, many of them will lack an adult who has the emotional and mental resources available to foster virtual learning, as they are facing their own stress and simply trying to survive.

The pandemic of child abuse has been happening long before anyone even heard of COVID-19, with 3.6 million reports being made each year. A report from 2018 indicated that educators make around 21% of the child abuse and neglect reports nationally. For many of the children who experience this abuse and neglect, school is the only place they have to feel safe – emotionally, physically, and academically. Child Welfare organizations have seen a decrease in reports during the time of the pandemic, but there seems to be an understanding amongst people working in the field that this doesn’t mean the abuse isn’t happening, it just means no one’s interacting with the children to get the information and make the call. Without school, many children will continue to live in unsafe environments, experiencing abuse and neglect on a regular basis, without a safe person to help.

I am not in any way trying to be an alarmist. I believe children are resilient and strong and much more capable than we generally give them credit for. I am asking, however, that in addition to the academic, economic, and safety concerns that are being considered when deciding to reopen schools, the mental health of all of our children be taken into account. All of our kids are affected, in one way or another, and many of them are expressing it in different ways. They’re moody, anxious, irritable, angry, sad, and confused, and this post gives more information about how to read those emotions and respond differently. I am hopeful that as decisions about school are made, communities can come together to put other safeguards in place and continue to have tough conversations about how we can show up for our kids in new ways, to support them in learning to navigate this new, albeit crappy, normal.

We’re Here to help!

If you’re experiencing domestic violence or other abuse, or know someone who is, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit SAMHSA’s website for a list of other resources.

At PSG, we have trained therapists to help you manage during this difficult time. Whether you need a space to process your own thoughts and feelings, or your child needs additional support as they try to work through all the recent changes, we’re here to help!

Ready to take the next step? Request an appointment

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