Welcome to Children’s Mental Health Week 2021!
Ha! Ha ha ha ha ha sorry excuse me while I burst into tears.
I mean, all the newspapers and magazines think that our children are going nuts. Are they? How can we even tell if our children’s mental health is suffering? What does it look like?
Some children come to their parents and say “I am sad and lonely without my friends.” But sometimes that’s not what it looks like. What it sometimes looks like is our quiet and thoughtful children fold in on themselves, retreating into an inner fantasy life, rejecting all offers of outside stimulus. Our sociable and sporty children on the other hand explode outwards, they are unco-operative, rude and hyper.
Are they behaving like that because of lockdown? Or is it because of me? Or am I just projecting my own feelings of claustrophobia and boredom on to them? Or is that just what they were always like I just didn’t used to spend 24hrs a day with them?
There have been voices recently, responding to the child mental health crisis, saying: “Get a grip. Stop telling children and teens their lives are fucked and start telling them they’ll be fine.”
And I’m sure they will be. And I’m also sure we, as parents, probably aren’t pounding round the house with our eyes on stalks screaming “Your lives are over!” We’re not that stupid. Worrying privately about what’s happening to our children doesn’t mean we can’t present a calm and reassuring facade.
But we’ve got five more weeks of this muddy, depressing, thankless bullshit and I am worried about my children’s state of mind. Particularly Sam. The activities he particularly liked, that I reckoned contributed to a calm and manageable mood are specifically the things that are banned: tearing about with his little mates, playing organised sport, showing off in front of a crowd, talking endlessly about Pokemon, Among Us and Geometry Dash with his peers in person.
And there is no way of replicating that at home. Even though Giles is keen and able to play football or cricket, it’s too miserable, wet and muddy. We are all of us so sick to our stomachs of the same boring walks in the same disgusting parks, that I have banned walks for three days. But what about the exercise! The running about and shouting! What the hell are we going to do?
I find the suggestions offered in all media I have read so far pathetic and unhelpful or mired in psychobabble gobbledegook. A nature walk? A nice family boardgame? Remind everyone how much harder Nelson Mandela had it? Eat my shorts. I need solutions and I need them right fucking now.
Hannah Abrahams is a child psychologist and is @childhoodminded on Instagram. She has this to say.
“Mood amongst children, just as it does with adults, fluctuates and changes throughout a single day, let alone a week. We are all living in a state of trauma and displaying feelings of loss but it’s not a permanent state, it can change.”
It can change. You can start again tomorrow, don’t forget that.
Depending on what sort of kid you’ve got, if they’re at the quieter end of the character chart (for want of a better word “introverted”) they might freeze completely, stop talking and responding, display repetitive self-soothing behaviour like pacing around and shy even further away from socialising. Louder, more sociable children might go the other way, become entirely uncooperative and, frankly, just behave like a total jerk.
“They might be getting really angry at parents and siblings,” says Hannah, “And destroy things because they feel they’re not being heard or validated.”
Validated. The word leapt out at me. How is Sam usually validated? Yes perhaps sport, spelling tests and banter did a very efficient job at ticking one of my son’s major emotional need boxes but is that the only way? Can I somehow else make him feel validated?
Of course, I don’t think this is what Hannah meant by “validated”. I think she meant that children need to be able to express their feelings and for those feelings to be “validated”. It’s straight out of the old How To Talk so Kids Will Listen and How To Listen So Kids Will Talk playbook. If you don’t know it, it goes like this:
Child: I hate my sibling so much I hope it dies
Parent: Oh my gosh you are really angry with your sibling
Child: Yeah I hate my sibling it is a fucking jerk
Parent: Your sibling must have done something to really annoy you
Child: Yeah. I am really angry
Parent: You sound really narked off. I wish that I could make it so that you and your sibling got on a bit better
Child: Yeah. what’s for dinner?
Child: I hate my sibling so much I hope it dies
Parent: What?! Don’t be ridiculous!! You were having fun earlier on! You love each other don’t say things like that, it’s not nice.
Getting the hang of this is important, because telling your children that they’re not actually feeling the feelings that they’re having or that you want them to stop having them because you, as a parent, find them inconvenient or frightening… that doesn’t end well.
Okay, so back to solutions for validating boisterous little boys. Here is the sum total of everything useful I have discovered over the last week. Sorry, some of it you will already be doing, some of it won’t work on your kids. But something, somewhere might spark a tiny glimmer of an idea. I implore you to add your own brilliant ideas in the handy comment box below.
1 Give them choice. We’re back to toddler territory, here. Whenever you can in whatever flash-of-inspiration way you can, offer them some kind of choice. Not like a blanket wish but a choice. Juice or water? Weetabix or toast?
2 Involve them in any pitiful daily plans so that they at least feel that they were consulted, even if their answer is: “don’t care”.
3 Turn as much as you can into a test or a competition. How fast can you get dressed? You managed a minute yesterday, can you do it in under that? Anyone with their clothes on backwards is disqualified. I actually cannot believe Sam is into this but he loves it (shows how desperate we are). Take anything they show even the tiniest glimmer of interest in and get them to memorise it and test them on it. Bad luck if it’s Pokemon, bonus for you if it’s World Capitals.
4 It’s too wet for football or cricket but it’s not too wet to play catch inside while reciting times tables (if you like) or it works for Sam when he’s expected to listen to some sort of educational video. He’s not terrific at sitting still and I was reading a thing a few years ago about how some children – most often but not exclusively boys – actually learn better if they are active while the information goes in. A friend of mine’s son goes to an all-boys school and in science lessons they don’t even have chairs, they don’t actually expect the boys to sit down at all, just jitter about poking things and bumping into each other while the teacher talks about manganese. The school gets very good results, I’m told.
5 We also have a very light foam football that Sam kicks around and cannot do much damage with. You have to put up with a foam ball sailing through the air past your nose while cooking etc but as far as I’m concerned it’s a small price to pay.
6 If remotely possible with space and other resources, it has been suggested to me that a mini trampoline and investing in a basketball hoop either inside (with the foam ball) or outside can give vital succour to results-driven-physical children.
7 A scavenger hunt with a prize. If they’re not too old for this, get something they want (in our case, the dreaded Pokemon cards) and then send them racing off round the house to find things (something red, something from Mum’s bedroom etc) and bring it back. Of course send them to the furthest flung corners of the house that you can. This will probably only work once but by gum they love it.
8 Silent disco. After dinner, Sam puts on headphones and listens to crazy techno music and dances around like he’s being electrocuted. It’s a release of energy for him and highly amusing for us, especially if we’re 1 cocktail in.
Jennifer Wills Lamacq, who is a Child and Educational Psychologist (Insta @kindie_psychology) sent me a brilliant email regarding children in lockdown, which I will reprint in full tomorrow with her permission, but she contributed this:
“Really active children who are suffering from enforced lockdown can benefit from sensory circuits or proprioceptive exercises at home. These take a bit of trial and error as what is calming for one child is overstimulating for another.
- stretching with resistance bands,
- hanging around from Pull-Up bars,
- rolling over and under yoga balls,
- planking on foam rollers
- heavy lifting and weight bearing”
Now on to your more reserved child. I find that I used to have my most constructive chats with Kitty when we were alone in the car, but obviously that’s not happening any more. In many ways, I think Kitty is surviving lockdown reasonably well, but it’s nice to check in from time to time, just to make sure that she’s ticking over okay. But in the general day-to-day roustabout it’s not that easy to engineer a conversation.
Hannah Abrahams makes the point that children between the ages of 9-13 and often beyond really don’t like a lot of eye contact, which is why talking to them in the car is such a classic win. A trick she passed on was to “accidentally” have some of their favourite children’s books from when they were little – or 4 or 5 – hanging about just, you know, just there. Hannah says tweenagery type children are really drawn to familiar things from earlier childhood, especially now. Through the books a conversation might start about then and now and generally what’s slopping around their tiny minds.
And slime, she says, if you want to know what they’re thinking, stand side-by-side with your child and make slime. Or a cake, whatever’s easiest.
Then you can deploy your killer parenting move of “feeling validation” as outlined above and it’s job done.
How about you? Please, if you have any practical tips that might inspire any one with any sort of child PLEASE leave a note in the handy box below.