There are many ways in which our lives have been altered – perhaps irretrievably – over the past year, and from the perspective of their impact on global mental health, many of them concern me greatly.
But of all the dangerous guff that’s been spouted, the notion that children are somehow completely unaffected by the pandemic and are able to simply shrug the experience off is by some distance the most worrying.
I’m not sure where the myth that children have an apparently impenetrable resilience originated. But it’s an insidious and damaging belief about child welfare that, unchecked, serves only to legitimise emotional abuse.
Resilience is a blood brother to fear, so in order to understand how resilience works it’s necessary to understand what fear does. Around 70% of brain activity is devoted to survival and the detection of threat.
Many of those threats are primeval – dating back to the Stone Age – and disease is one of those fundamental fears.
The brain’s instinctive prioritisation of threat surveillance and identification meant that as cave-dwellers, we constantly relied on our five primary senses to be alert to the risks posed by other predators and illness.
The modern world version of that constant scanning mode is our tendency to devour bad news and terrifying stories.
The brain is quick to learn about fear, but very slow to unlearn it, which means fear can build to panic or phobic levels very quickly and, like Covid-19, fear is highly infectious.
Now consider the effect a constant diet of threat and fear might have on the unformed and tender psyche of a child.
Responsible parents have worked hard to try to protect their children from the media’s constant barrage of ominous foreboding over the last 12 months, but the Government-fuelled campaign of fear has been inescapable.
A child’s unformed brain, already hard wired for survival from the moment of conception and unable to differentiate one ‘truth’ from another, is extraordinarily vulnerable. It learns very rapidly about things to fear and these learnings are lasting: the brain of a child is learning how to protect itself for life.
Whereas in the Stone Age, it was very important for a child to learn fast about the dangers of a world full of existential threats, today, our world is very different and fear is often our enemy: an irrational response that triggers destructive behaviours and leads to a variety of mental health problems. It can scar a child for life and may even become an existential threat in itself, for example, in driving problem drinking, stress-related medical conditions, eating disorders, and worse.
Yet still I hear that people say, But children are resilient.
In my world we call this ‘minimisation’. It’s a comment or opinion that, intentionally or otherwise, serves to diminish and usually comes from people who have little or no understanding of how the subconscious works.
Other minimisations include A few years from now they won’t remember this.
Wrong. The subconscious always remembers. Worse, it stores that memory away so it becomes a trigger for fear later in life.
A child may not remember this period consciously. Their subconscious – the constant inner guardian – may even suppress it and lock it away to keep them safe for now.
But never under-estimate the subconscious in its relentless commitment to prioritising ‘safety’ over happiness. The last year’s continual commands to stay safe, wash your hands, keep your distance and don’t kill granny are powerful instructions to the subconscious.
To give you a sense of the power of repeated messages, consider the large number of clients I’ve seen whose battles with compulsive and destructive eating can be traced back to the harmless (at the time) finish everything on your plate instruction they received on a daily basis at the age of 5.
Children are not resilient. They’re not meant to be. They’re meant to be able to be children.
I know that those who minimise are not trying to be unhelpful. I have no doubt that people who say that children ‘bounce back’ honestly believe that to be true. I know that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is a mantra that is sometimes right on the money. But not for children.
The real truth of children’s lack of emotional resilience occupies the chair opposite me in my clinic every day in the form of adults who are so broken by their childhood experiences that they find themselves unable to live life completely.
I have spent the last 19 years dealing with people whose childhood has been defined by one or more traumatic events from which they have never properly been allowed to recover.
And guess what? It’s an almost certain bet that their parents and other adults who formed part of their care network were never even aware there was an issue. So, why is that?
Well in some cases it’s due to the parent being under the spell of their own trauma & unconscious denial of that trauma, but it’s also that children internalise trauma. Whilst they are absolutely capable of expressions – either verbally or emotionally – of anger, sadness, happiness, nervousness or shyness, trauma has the opposite effect, causing them to retreat emotionally.
And contrary to popular misconception, trauma doesn’t have to be something on an epic scale, like physical or sexual abuse.
Trauma is often nuanced, and is often also entirely personal, which is why two children may have completely different emotional responses to exactly the same experience.
As an example, two children visit a theme park and both of them go on one of the big rollercoasters. They sit next to each other and so they share exactly the same experience. One child has so much fun they think all their Christmases have come at once. The other child finds the experience utterly terrifying and experiences nightmares and flashbacks.
Parents like to think their children are resilient because 99.9% of parents believe their only role in life is to keep their children safe from any experience that isn’t 100% positive.
I have seen parents utterly exhausted in their attempts to shield their children from the campaign of fear that was launched in March last year.
But here’s a newsflash: all parents are flawed. Even those role model types who look and behave as if they’re completely unfazed by anything parenthood throws at them slip and fall once in a while.
And in the last year, the scope for harm has increased. Parents have been placed under extraordinary stress by the impact of the pandemic.
The lines of parent-child relationships have become blurred as mum and dad have been forced to play the dual role of parent and teacher.
They have also been forced to manage a situation in which they and their children have been at home 24/7 but, because of their own work commitments, the children have not had unconditional access to their attention and affection.
For many children, that shift in the relationship dynamic has been confusing and unsettling.
Parents are prone to setting wholly unrealistic expectations of themselves when it comes to their child’s welfare.
So, let’s be clear on the realities here. No matter how good a parent you are, you can’t protect your children from everything life throws at them.
We do our best and we hope to shield them from the worst of it, but life is brutal, your children will be scarred by it, and there is nothing you can do to stop that from happening.
And while it’s not true that children are resilient to everything they face in life, it’s also true that some of the painful lessons life teaches are also healthy (in fact, being coddled and nannied can also create fragility in a child’s psyche) and do create resilience.
In the end, a child doesn’t need perfect parenting to be healthy. They only need ‘good enough’ parenting in order to feel safe, loved and protected.
The problem that we’ve all faced over the last year – and which has impacted particularly on parents – is the sometimes oppressive hand of government directly changing the structure of our lives.
It’s not just children who have experienced anxiety either. Fear is transient. It has no single owner, and it breeds quickly.
When parents feel scared or disquieted, it’s hard to hide – and particularly hard to hide from children who, whilst unable to perhaps grasp the nuances of emotions are nevertheless skilled observers and interpreters of emotional discomfort.
That’s why I feel enormous compassion for parents in this situation.
That’s partly because I am ever admiring of that primordial instinct to protect and partly because they are trying to be good parents when they are themselves under extraordinary pressure from an overbearing government and media to be ‘good Covid citizens’ – which may not be in the best interests of their children.
But mostly I feel huge sympathy for parents because their right to parent as they see fit has been removed under the very real threat of shaming.
Further, the ‘alter-parent’ interference of government, done – some might say spuriously – in the name of safety and welfare, has had a direct and negative impact on children’s relationships with their friends, their teachers, their parents and their extended families.
Mandatory masking has prevented them from learning the skills of social interaction through the interpretation of facial expressions.
In a jaw-dropping moment of ineptitude from the Health Secretary, they were told they had to stay away from their Granny because they might kill her. I mean, I’m not usually given to invective in these blogs, but WTAF?
They have been segregated from their friends.
They have been burdened with a greater burden of responsibility to manage their own learning than is normal, right or fair.
They have been unable to form rewarding pupil-teacher learning relationships due to extended closures of schools.
They have been robbed of the chance of earning the exam results they deserved.
And whilst all of that might today be considered a so-called First World problem, we should not underestimate the ‘next world’ problem that will be its legacy.
Until the age of nine, we exist purely in our subconscious. At that age we have no conscious filter that allows us to judge or understand what is true and what is not.
It is at this time that powerful unconscious beliefs form – and scientific study has proved that, whatever is repeated ultimately sticks and, in the context of false truths, translates into fear, obsession and phobia.
And the end product of living in a state of continuous fear is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or, worse, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It isn’t really very hard, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, to wonder if the way in which we have treated, and continue to treat, the Class of 2021 isn’t in some way incubating a generation of adults with Covid PTSD.
At an extreme, could we end up with a world in which the children of the future are seen by the children of today as a potential contagion, because that is how they have repeatedly been told to see themselves?
Is our legacy to be a global community of socially anxious hypochondriacs, agoraphobics, and germ phobics? Because that’s what awaits us if we continue to perpetuate the myth or false belief that children are simply ‘resilient’
In my next blog, I’ll be sharing some tips for parents on how to offer emotional protection in a climate of fear