Weathering the storm
It’s been a hard year for children and families. Playtime with friends has been severely restricted. Schools have opened and closed, often at short notice. Activities have stopped and there are few places to go. In the first lockdown, even playgrounds were closed. Many families have lost income and tensions run high as everyone is at home too much and for too long. Then there are those who have lost family members to Covid, or who have been ill themselves. As my nine-year-old said, ‘It’s like the coronavirus stopped all the fun’.
The press coverage certainly reflects that. We’re told that children may never catch up on the time they are missing at school, that parents are struggling to cope and that they can’t hope to fill the job of a trained teacher. Then there’s the threat of a tide of mental health problems and intensive school catch up when Covid is over. So just what do we have to look forward to?
Families have got this message loud and clear. Many parents feel they are failing at lockdown parenting, and that whatever they do can never be enough. Parents contact me (a clinical psychologist) worried that their children are falling behind and that we are raising a lost generation. They think that their children have missed a year of their development and will be behind for life. They talk about fights over home schooling and children having huge meltdowns over tiny events. They all want to know how they will help them ‘catch up’ – academically, psychologically and emotionally.
It’s undoubtably true that this pandemic will change this generation’s experience of childhood. It’s also true that the effect of the pandemic varies greatly, depending on a family’s circumstances. Inequalities which were already there are exacerbated (Marmot et al., 2020). Families who were already struggling are struggling more. Abuse has got worse in many families, and many children need help urgently. A lot of the help they need is practical. They need a safe place to live, loving adults around them and enough money to live.
But it’s also true that how we think and talk about our experiences matters. In fact, one could argue that this is one of the central tenets of applied psychology. Life isn’t just about what happens to you, it’s about how you make sense of what happens to you – and what explanations are offered to you to help you with that.
One of the ways in which children in make sense of their lives is through stories or narratives. Research indicates by age three, children are already creating stories about their own lives (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Narratives help children make sense of the world, enabling them to bring together the events which are happening in their lives with their own reactions, and move towards psychological integration (Siegal, 2015).
Children don’t create narratives in a vacuum. They pick up on what is being said around them, and on the way their family talks about events. And families pick up on narratives from wider society. The prevailing narrative right now in this country is one of deficit and damage, with that deficit is often being located in children and families. We’re told that children aren’t learning enough and parents aren’t coping well enough. Parents are being told they can’t possibly be as good as a qualified teacher, and that even their young children should be completing hours of sit down work each day. They read articles suggest that every day of school counts, and that what goes on at school is so important that children’s cognitive ability may be affected for ever.
This is news to the many successful home educators in this country and around the world, whose children never attend school and yet successfully become educated (Thomas & Pattison, 2008)… but no one seems to be listening to them. Very little press coverage has dealt with how learning is different at home, although the research shows that a more collaborative and free-flowing approach works better for most than formal instruction (Riley, 2020). Many parents say they feel like failures, as they try to do the impossible and replicate school, and panic that their children will never catch up on those missed worksheets.
Young people are worried too – a Censuswide survey funded by The Prince’s Trust of 2,000 UK 16-25 year-olds found that more than a third of them felt that their education had ‘gone to waste’ and that almost half worried that missing out on education would set them back for the rest of their life. The Covid-19 pandemic is being portrayed as a sort of catastrophic stasis for children and young people, a year in which nothing is being learnt and no development is happening. They are listening, and they believe it.
There’s a similar narrative with mental health. There’s talk of a mental health crisis, of demand hugely outstripping supply and of widespread decline in wellbeing (e.g. Weale, 2021). It’s certainly true that many young people are anxious and depressed right now (Newlove-Delgado et al, 2021). Lots of their parents are too. There is, on the face of it, quite a lot to be anxious and depressed about. There’s a lot to be angry about too, and so it doesn’t surprise me that some children are angry and expressing that through their behaviour.
When we call these emotional reactions mental health problems, we define them as a disorder, an illness or dysfunction. Does feeling anxious, depressed and angry after nearly a year of intermittent lockdown, social distancing and ongoing fear of Covid-19 mean that there’s anything actually wrong? In this context, one might even say that feeling happy and relaxed could be cause for concern – haven’t those chilled out people noticed what’s going on in the world?!
Repair, or disempowerment?
Once we have this narrative set up of widespread damage and crisis, the answer is of course repair. This means more formal input from professionals. The government is apparently planning longer school hours and shorter holidays (Watt, 2021). The Psychiatric Times calls for more psychiatric evaluations and early interventions (Wagner, 2020).
Unfortunately this narrative can also be one of disempowerment. Children and families are told they will need formalised interventions and they believe it. The focus is on structuring children’s time more, on them spending more time directed by adults. Yes, young people have missed out on things this year. But they have also continued to learn and grow. They have acquired new skills and learnt about managing adversity. Many have learnt to structure their own time, with fewer activities to get to. It’s likely that when things open up, many of them they will start to feel happier again. Given the chance, they will be able to do the things they value and meet up with people they care about.
That is, unless we have set them up to fail by convincing them they are now damaged for life. Some of the solutions proposed to help children after Covid do not involve more choices and time to explore. In fact, quite the opposite. Longer school hours is an example – children have been shut indoors for months this year, and yet the solution is said to be more time shut in a different indoors. Evaluations and therapy, whilst useful when needed, also make demands on children’s time and can pathologise their emotional reactions, locating the problem in the child rather than events.
An alternative would be to talk about resilience, and what children and families need to be more resilient. Primary among that would be more resources for the worst-off, but it could also focus on what families need so they can be supported to help their children learn and thrive. We could stop talking about how what goes on at home can’t possibly be the same as school, and instead think about how well learning at home can work when children are able to follow their interests (Fisher, 2021). We could prioritise allowing children to play, rather than getting them back into formal schooling as a top priority.
Of course, talking about resilience might not be in the best interest of many psychologists. I have a steady flow of parents coming to ask me for help. They believe that they cannot help their own children, and they are sometimes haunted by the idea that the events of this year are catastrophic and irreversible. It makes for a lot of referrals. The help I offer them isn’t necessarily what they expect, because what I do is offer a different story. It’s one of normal reactions to abnormal events. I say of course they feel bored, of course they feel lonely – it’s because there isn’t much happening and they can’t see other people. We can think about ways to stay hopeful and to continue to build new connections within the limits of lockdown, but there’s really nothing pathological about feeling lonely when you aren’t allowed to see other people.
We discuss images of resilience. These might be weathering the storm, or beating a path through the woods. The children tell me about moments of triumph and change which have occurred even in this year of apparent absence of progress. We draw timelines of the hard times and the good times. We reframe their story, from people who are failing to those who are dealing with difficult times and who are learning and surviving, even when they feel distressed.
A life worth living
This is hard to do. My own children are distressed by lockdown. They are bored and lonely, they frequently get angry and upset and I wish I could make it less difficult for them. But resilience isn’t about not feeling emotions or never getting angry. It’s about knowing that you can carry on even when things are tough. It’s a belief in your capacity for recovery. This is what we need to give our children, and this is the narrative I think psychologists need to fight for. How we talk about things matters.
Focusing on a different narrative might mean that whilst we acknowledge the damage done by Covid-19, we could focus on ways that parents can help their kids feel that their lives are worth living right now. We could acknowledge learning in all its forms, informal and child-led as well as formal teaching and worksheets. We could campaign for a summer of free play rather than intensive educational interventions. PlayFirstUK, a group of developmental and child psychologists, are calling on the government for exactly that (PlayFirstUK, 2021). There could be free events in parks when we are able to gather again, free music festivals and free museum entry for families. Schools could reopen to provide opportunities for creativity and social connections, rather than to get children back to classrooms and curriculums. Places for young people to meet their friends could be prioritised, and cross-generational mixing encouraged We could encourage young people to talk, draw and write about their experiences, building archives for the future. All of that could help families move forwards whilst acknowledging their losses, without disempowering or pathologising them further.
When we define strong emotional reactions as a problem, no matter what the circumstances, then it is inevitable that every big event will be followed by a ‘mental health crisis’. Psychologists and psychiatrists will rush to intervene, services will be overwhelmed and many people will not get the help they feel they need. It’s not possible to meet the need through mental health services, because in this context, an awful lot of people will meet referral threshold.
This doesn’t mean that many families don’t need help. Nor does it mean that everyone is doing okay. But it does mean that psychologists might consider what narrative they are perpetuating about the impact of Covid-19, and whether the explanations they offer are empowering and engender hope.
We could tell our children that when difficult things happen, people feel distress, and this is normal. We could let them know that they are learning, even outside school. We could trust that we and our children can get through this and come out the other side, even if it’s one of the hardest things we have ever done. Something is wrong with the world, and when that happens, people react with distress. That doesn’t make us damaged or deficient, nor does it make us mentally ill. It makes us human.
Naomi Fisher is a clinical psychologist and author of Changing Our Minds: How Children Can Take Control of their Learning, published by Robinson.
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