Children have made it most of the way through this pandemic. But having spent three months isolated from friends, stuck with their family and watching the adult world grind to a halt around them, many are mentally in a mess.
It’s been tough for all of us. Some have faced the deep pain of loss, many have been unwell or had to cope with family illness, and we’ve all experienced anxiety and uncertainty. The crisis has shown us that we don’t have a strong framework to turn to when things get tough.
So we begin the process of helping children to mentally rebuild. Seeing children again is what we are all desperate for. But managing the complexity of some starting while others continue at home with remote support is tough.
Maslow’s pyramid is a neat hierarchy of human needs. Our needs and appetites are set out as a continuum from the lower needs (body) to our higher needs (relationship, mind and spirit). It reminds us that children’s current deep-rooted anxiety sits beneath everything.
I think children and young people have found the following three things especially difficult:
Stage 1/ Missing Pleasure
Firstly, children have been isolated and missed out on pleasurable experiences natural to childhood: exercise, the beauty of nature, art or music, the touch of their family, laughter. On the Maslow pyramid, pleasure is associated with safety and security and should be foundational, part of our basic needs and what it means to be human. We all experience life through our senses, especially the young.
We’ve all struggled missing out on the nice things in life: cinema, cafes, shops, pubs, hobbies, gyms, sports clubs, and youngsters have missed out on the adolescent freedom to explore. Pursuing pleasure can’t all be done virtually. It means experiencing the world and all it offers. Life in all its fullness. Trying out experiences helps us find out for real what we like and don’t like. It teaches us where our future might lie. Children’s senses over this period, and hence their development, have been stunted.
Stage 2/ Isolated from People
Secondly, children have become unhappy through loneliness and anxiety. Children are sad because, although they have survived online, a life lived over the airwaves isn’t how to grow up. A healthy childhood isn’t frequent posting to large groups, but deeper connections with one or two close friends. Experimenting what you think and feel with a few mates. Feeling your nervous way forward, building the language of relationship.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what real interaction means, but I know I prefer a 2m socially distanced side-by-side chat to a watery Zoom group chat any day. Side by side, with no time lag, responding to body language, with a real soul. Without this, messages can be misunderstood, physical clues missed. Happiness is developing the confidence to share yourself properly with others – in person, and where this is reciprocated. It’s what makes us human. It’s what they’ve missed.
Stage 3/ Losing Purpose
Thirdly, children are lacking a sense of purpose because their sense of natural order of things has crumbled. In the place of routine and order, young people have seen paralysed parents, stuck schools and ponderous politicians. Children have seen the cracks in our perfectly planned days, schedules splintering before their very eyes. On the Maslow pyramid young people achieve purpose and direction because there is a clearly ordered series of life steps ahead of them.
Growing up is establishing what we are good at, working out what to do with it and how we will fit into a highly structured adult world. How we might use our career to earn hard cash and serve society. Ultimately, joy comes through discovering who we are and where we fit in, and finding purpose in life.
Instead of this, teenagers have experienced cancelled exams, few deadlines, vague goals. They’re questioning why they worked so hard. For teenagers trying to establish identity, it’s a future clouded with furloughs, unemployment and economic crisis.
What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, when society looks fragile, when order becomes disorder, visualising any destination is doubly difficult.
Adolescence is about rebelling against the rules, moaning about school, complaining about parents. The job description of a moody teenager is to kick against the system. But what if the system itself has fallen apart, and there’s nothing against which to lay the boot?
So I believe helping that children rebuild means recreating pleasure in the physical world around them, the happiness that only real people (not online connection) can bring and that sense of purpose and direction which young people have currently lost. They’ve been stripped away during lockdown, and we need to put them back together, from the bottom of the pyramid to the top. Together this trilogy of hope creates easily understandable destinations for effective mental health. Maybe this is how Maslow might redraw his hierarchy of needs right now.
But it’s not just the last twelve weeks. The problems we are seeing have been brewing for a decade. In thrall to their phones, at the mercy of advertising from big corporations, captured in video-game frenzy, we have outsourced our parenting to addictive electronics. This toxic culture we have created, or at least allowed to unfold, is crippling more kids than ever.
How do we know this? Well the national picture is dire. Mental health beds for children in England increased by 50% between 1999 and 2014. The number of young people admitted to hospital for self-harm has risen by 68% in ten years. The Charity Young Minds say the number of children receiving counselling for exam stress has tripled.
And Covid-19 has doubled down on this, accelerating teen anxiety, inadequacy and fear. For our most fragile young people, their choices of distraction from anxiety are often poor: More access pornography. Highly anxious teens, with poor communication skills, fracture relationships online. And our most vulnerable are at real risk of exploitation. And for those who’ve need them most in the crisis, few face to face meetings with social workers or psychotherapy appointments with mental health teams have been possible.
So why don’t we have a standardised mental health system? Well, I think the perception is that parents send their children to school to gain knowledge not softer skills. To build their times tables, not resilience. To name the chambers of the heart, not plumb its depths. There’s a lot we assume happens by osmosis: on the bus, in the lunch queue, at netball practice. Except that it often doesn’t. My son might stumble through Y7 making a friend or two, but not learn how to overcome a bereavement. My daughter might learn about the dangers of class A drugs, without knowing how to prevent feeling low from spiralling into depression.
Strong mental health has never been more important. As we widen our offer to children and begin more face-to-face talk, We need to support them from where they actually are, not where we want them to be.
So, in my next post:
I will look at how we can do this.