"It is easier to build stronger children than heal broken adults" is a deeply illuminating statement I read yesterday from our dear Karen's raw, heartbreaking account of the abuse she experienced in childhood. That motivated me to share this story on the often overlooked topic, of children's mental health. I hadn't shared it because it's an old story, and I've been moving on from dwelling too much on Covid-19, but it might be relevant to someone here.
News of Melbourne’s second lock-down increased my children’s Covid-19 induced anxiety, requiring parenting creativity in how we dealt with it. With trembling lips, our 5-year-old put down his dinner spoon, stared teary eyed at his dad and said: “I don’t understand why there is no more school. There was no virus at school when we left”. It was hard to engage that sad, questioning face with its intense frustration, and not mirror its tears. That was the end of dinner. It would be the end to a lot of things, for what would seem like a long, long time.
When children are anxious, they don’t tell you. They show you.
Children have a life too
Imagine yourself a child,with school to go to, friends to play-date, cousins to visit, grandparents to bring unexpected treats, monkey bars to climb and aunties to read with. Perhaps you enjoy ballet or riding lessons, kicking a ball with friends, and visits to the aquarium, where the graceful strokes of swimming sea creatures mesmerise you.
If you were a child with plans, and life stopped without warning, would your mental health be affected?
Behavioural indicators of probable anxiety
The answers may vary depending on the child and their age.
For my two children under six, their anxiety came across as confusion, frustration, and irritability. They complained often, suffered poor sleep and experienced nightmares . They fought more over small things and big things too, like their parents’ attention. It is how they sought comfort, to bring an iota of reassurance to their unspoken anxieties.
Since they were nursing an undercurrent of stress, they asked for treats more often, and cried with every denied request. Perhaps every ‘no’ reminded them of what had been denied them, by an invisible virus.
When I thought of it, my kids were acting like the rest of the population: fighting to control what they thought they still had control over. Sadly, many people may not consider children’s feelings. Some may not even consider that children feel much, because children don’t often express their feelings.
My kids were acting like the rest of the population, fighting to control what they thought they still had control over.
My children tried hard to fix this invisible problem.Every creature that scuttled past was the virus. There would be calls to squash it dead so that we could resume life. There would be boom gates on toy train tracks blocking the virus entry, so we could be safe. Observing their attempts at Covid-19 solutions made me realise that children want the same things adults want. Mine did.
The threat of the virus seemed greater in their mind than it was in the real world, because they didn’t understand. They felt vulnerable, and the adults they relied on for answers had none.
Observing their attempts at Covid-19 solutions, I realised that children want the same things adults want. Mine did.
When they discovered that the government could not see us, they suggested we disobey the government and visit family and friends. Although hearing this suggestion was heartbreaking, it opened my mind to the turmoil in my children’s young minds. Life is tough when you don’t understand.
It is very easy to ignore children’s mental health, because they seldom express their emotions verbally. But I find that failing to address theirs affects my mental health as well. We are interdependent; when they are happy, I am unflustered.
Why increased anxiety
Up until Covid 19’s disruption of social life, our home was a corridor. Frequent visitors gave the children much to anticipate. For our children, visitors were a platform for living and learning. Guests meant hugs. Play. Reading with. Interactive audience for new skills and tricks. Dinners and dessert. Love.
Having that snatched away without warning brought anxiety. Big conversations, explanations and reassurances ensued, leading to acceptance. But six weeks is a long time in the life of a child, and eventually called for lock-down problem-solving 5-year-old style; ‘let us disobey the government or find the virus and squash it!’
When young children are anxious, they may not express it. While adults may have a set of rituals to reclaim balance when we feeling overwhelmed, young children must rely on our sensitivity, and compassion.
For our family, the suddenness of the second Melbourne lock-down snatched with it a lineup of dinners with old friends, play-dates, and school. A few days in, the children’s unspoken anxieties would start to present in aforementioned behaviours.
On the same breath our five-year-old mourned the loss of school, he asked how far December was, to gauge if the virus would be gone. He feared having to forfeit the annual week-long get together with his cousins in December, if Covid-19 had not been contained. Looking at our son’s crumpling face made us brainstorm on ways we could keep life lively and unpredictable, during six weeks of severe stage four restrictions.
Here was a five-year-old counting his losses, anticipating more loss, grieving, hoping. Winter had just gotten longer.
About a week later, the solution came in an unlikely concept during a crisis; celebrate the goodness of God.
In celebration mode, ours and the children’s job has been to scout for anything worth celebrating, gathered from online conversations with family and friends, and from our daily life. We discuss which of our findings are worth celebrating, vote, and plan our celebration.
In celebrating, we are pushing against the surge of negative psycho-emotional energy as is often the case during crises, and winning.
We celebrate any good news from people we know. We celebrate independence, leadership, and innovation in schoolwork. We celebrate exceptional resilience when hurt during play. When a child demonstrates responsibility in self-care or care of family members, we celebrate. We celebrate trees, flowers, clouds, rain. When we discover new creatures never seen before on our neighbourhood romps, we celebrate.
Celebrating affords us something positive to occupy our minds. It means treats, desserts and meal requests, joy. It means special activities and extra quality time. More importantly, celebrating disrupts lock-down monotony by giving us something to look forward to.
Building a culture of celebration compels us to continually analyse our lives for things we can be grateful for. While looking for gratitude, we spend less time finding fault with life, and complaining.
Celebrating does not take away all the anxiety. It does not bring visitors. But it detracts the children’s dwelling on their losses too much. Their restored excitement, improved sleep and emotional stability, and less requests for e-meetings are evidence.
In the coming week, two celebrations are lined up. A friend in South East Asia recently found a great job, after more than a year of unemployment. It will be big, with disco lights and music for a jig.
The second in line is very close to the family. Our 8-month-old-infant can finally tolerate bovine dairy, and I spy pizza and ice-cream a plenty for that celebration.
While we occupy our minds with our search for gratitude, we reduce time and emotional drain spent complaining.
Celebrating may not work for every family, but as parents and carers, we can deploy creativity to help our children navigate their Covid anxieties. This might be as simple as remembering that children want the same things that adults want, and for these, they rely on our insight and compassion.
I do not claim expertise in parenting, or parenting through this Covid-19 crisis. I am simply sharing what I have learnt as I observe my children, grieve for their confusion and try to distract them from their losses.
The Victorian battle against a worse second wave of Covid-19 is unabated, making return to ‘normal’ far out of view. We need good news to celebrate, and remember we’re in the centre of life.
For our children, if it comes in peals of thunder and raindrops dancing on the roof, we’ll celebrate.
Thank you, for reading. Stay sparkly, always:)