Let’s work to reduce the Corona virus scars in the minds of the young...

If you have children, this post is for you. If you DON’T have children, this post is for you.

Some issues are so important for the world’s children that we all carry some parental responsibility for them.

Am I talking about coronavirus? Sort of. But not the virus itself, or keeping safe. Or whether to send kids to school or whether they can cuddle their grannies. All those things, one way or another, with time are going to resolve themselves, just as they have after all the world’s great pandemics and disasters. We are human, we struggle, we suffer, and we clear up after hurricanes, wars, floods and pandemics. One of the great characteristics of our human species is the ultimate resilience of our populations.

Physical resilience that is. Mental resilience is another matter, we can carry the marks of our experiences long after the event has receded in our memories. And this is where we have to take extra care of the growing generation of children and young people right now. As we move forward we want to do so with as few mental and emotional coronavirus scars on the foreheads (or within the neural pathways) of our children as possible.

Researchers at Oxford University tracking a cohort of families with children reported that parents observed significant levels of anxiety in children of all ages about various aspects of COVID-19. Children and young people were anxious about food, money, and missing school work.

More concerning though, is that almost half of older children (11-18) were worried about friends and relatives catching the disease, whether or not those people were actually in at risk groups, and 11% were worried that they would infect someone else (even though the risk of this was very low).

Among the under 11s a third of children were worried they would catch COVID-19 themselves and 23% per cent were worried that they would infect someone else.

Perhaps worst of all, parents reported that 17%, almost 1 in 5, of younger children were afraid to leave the house.

Not all children will carry these anxieties with them as the world begins to return to normal. But there is a very real danger that this short but intense period of focusing almost exclusively on an invisible germ that is dangerous for a few people will have imprinted itself too deeply on a significant proportion of young people. There is a danger that their brains will have rewired around the new ever-present fear and that it will disproportionately dominate their lives in some way.

Our brains are built to remember danger more easily than pleasure. It’s for our own protection, it may be nice to experience pleasure, but our safety doesn’t depend on it and so it’s not so important to remember it. Ignoring a danger, even once, can have life-threatening consequences. So we will more easily wire ourselves to remember and retain an awareness of danger.

We’ll do this more easily if the presence of the danger is highlighted frequently, or if we are deeply shocked or frightened by what we hear and see. We’ll also mimic the fear and behaviour of others, and take powerful messages from any perceived mistakes we make.

Recently I was out for a walk down a country lane. A young couple and their toddler son were approaching in the other direction. He was very happy and relaxed, running about in the sunshine and everyone was smiling. Then suddenly it seemed as if he was going to fleetingly breach the 2 meter rule. His mother screamed at him to come back and he stopped frozen in his tracks. Then he rushed fearfully to the side of the road and was held back as we passed, as if we were a critical danger to him and he to us. He might never consciously remember that incident when he grows up, but these are the events which, subconsciously, powerfully programme our feelings and our behaviour, especially if they are reinforced by subsequent experiences.

For many weeks now children have been subjected to news reports endlessly reiterating risks and dangers and personal tragedy. They have necessarily learned new behaviours, been taught that friends and loved ones are either potential risks or potential victims. The understandable obsession with this new threat has also meant that for many there has been an imbalance. There hasn’t been life + coronavirus, there has been coronavirus - overwhelming - life.

Young minds are wired to create impressions, to download information, to learn new behaviours fast, and then if those new behaviours seem to serve them well, to make them more and more permanent. If children become very anxious about one thing (and adults too for that matter) there can also be a ‘generalisation effect’ where they then start to become anxious about more and more things.

Our job now is to make sure that some of this new wiring is only temporary. We do not want children who are:

  • Programmed’ to be afraid of leaving their homes

  • Afraid that they will die of COVID-19

  • Afraid they will cause someone else to die

  • Nervous about spending time with family (as restrictions are relaxed)

  • Unable to hug or touch

  • Fearful of their future in a dangerous world

  • Depressed because life seems to be all fear, caution and misery

  • Obsessed with germs on everything (already a common feature of childhood/adolescent OCD)

  • Becoming fearful of more and more things

All of these things lead to unhealthy human brains, brains that experience life out of balance. When we don’t see things in perspective our behaviour starts to change, which in turn affects our feelings. When mental health suffers, then so does physical health, which in turn makes us feel even worse. And when children are unwell parents become incredibly worried and in this sense the whole thing becomes an infection in its own right.

So, collectively as a society that parents the next generation of young people - what can we do?

We want children and young people who are vibrant, resilient, free and secure in themselves - we need to be creating this expectation within them. Life hasn’t gone from risk - free to full of risk (although it can feel like that for us all). Life was already a journey of risks, and procedures to reduce risk; what has happened is that we have a significant new one to incorporate into that pre-existing pattern.

We can’t guarantee ourselves or the next generation a risk-free or problem-free future; no-one ever offered that to anyone. But we can be active in delivering to them a mentally healthy way of viewing life, of managing risk in sensible and practical, rather than fearful ways. We can help them balance risk, danger and difficulty with a greater emphasis on all that works, is safe - and fun.

Let’s focus on what we CAN do, what we CAN offer them, in a post-crisis coronavirus world.

Here are some practical approaches we can all incorporate moving forward: