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:
Reduce exposure to bad news and negativity
Switch off the endless news and discussion of COVID-19 for a while, even when it's in the background we can be absorbing it subconsciously. Our fear drives a kind of addiction to updates, but it also holds us all captive.
Be an example
As adults we are powerful, powerful role models for children and young people, they will take their cues from us. If you think you’ve adopted a fear approach to these issues, try stripping out the fear-based thinking. Remember fear and anxiety never helped anything, but information providers and news media often exploit our fear because it keeps us interested.
Where you have to teach or reinforce new practices and procedures (eg hand washing, social distancing, waiting in queues etc) do so with lightness and humour and straightforward information, not threat and fear.
Make sure that children and young people understand that the actual risk to them as people is very small, they are being asked to be careful because some there are some people who can become very ill if they are infected. This might seem obvious and easy to you, but I find many children have missed this point and think the risk to everyone is equal.
Help children, using age-appropriate language, to see that many things we do repeatedly in life are to keep us safe from common but serious dangers (seat belts in cars, washing hands after going to the loo, checking out the road before we cross, covering our mouths when we cough, not throwing stones near other people, checking that food is fresh before we eat it etc). We learn to do these things and then we move on, we don’t spend all day worrying about them. We also do our best with all of these, and sometimes we make mistakes in following the rules, everyone does.
We also have to explain to children that sometimes we have to take risks. We cannot always live with a full guarantee that we’ve eliminated all risk. If that was the case we’d never travel in a car (in case it crashed), or go to school(in case we caught a bug) or play football (in case we are injured). What we do, and what we have to be good at doing, is to be as safe as sensibly possible. It helps to encourage children as they get older to take a few managed risks so that they begin to know the experience of feeling a little fear and then overcoming it.
Work on normality and ordinariness. Children feel safe when inhabiting a familiar world that they enjoy. If there are forced changes try to make them seem as unremarkable as possible.
Approach all of this in age-appropriate ways. Almost everyone learns better through play, creativity, laughter, games, humour and stories. As adults, when we are challenged, it’s easy to drop that extra lightness of touch - we need it for ourselves too.
Reinforce the basics of health to reassure children and young people that they have supported their bodies to be as healthy as possible in the face of any kind of infection - nutritious food, regular sleep, fun exercise, novelty, praise and love to maintain self-esteem.
If your child is one who has been heavily involved in issues around COVID-19 consider creating a moment when you ‘draw a line’ under the crisis. This gives children and young people a chance to ‘reframe’ the story. We have lived through a crisis but that is now over. We might not be going back to exactly what we had before, but there is a sense of newness and starting over that comes with the idea that something is consigned to the past and our focus is now on creating a new, positive future.
We can’t undo anything that has happened already, but we can all do our bit to free the next generation, and ourselves for that matter, by refusing to carry a heavier, more restrictive psychological burden than we really need to.
Jackie Bland DSFH
Jackie Bland is a clinical psychotherapist/hypnotherapist.
Or visit our Facebook Page