On the Mental Fortitude of Kids
The misinformed outrage of parents who want schools to open full time this Fall
It’s always a little jarring to me when I hear mental health terms used colloquially these days. On the one hand, I’m glad that mental health is not a hidden, taboo topic like it was when I was growing up. It is without a doubt an absolutely essential conversation for all of us to be having.
On the other hand, I sometimes feel like the conversations surrounding mental health are too superficial.
Lately I am finding that there has been a casual overuse of these terms in the context of schools being closed. There is an outcry among parents that schools being closed is detrimental to the “mental health” of children and causing their children “anxiety” and “emotional trauma.”
I want to clarify that I am not talking about families where there is the danger of abuse at home or the true threat of the loss of essential needs such as food and shelter that results from parents not being able to work with their children at home. As a society, especially for those of us who are privileged, we need to do everything we can to support those that are in more vulnerable positions than we are.
What I am questioning is the blanket statement that all children’s mental health will be at risk if schools don’t physically reopen in the Fall, or if they reopen in a way that is different to what was “normal.”
What I am disagreeing with is families living in privilege seeming to only think about how their lives have been made more difficult and uncomfortable, be it being hard to work from home, not getting as much sleep, the near impossibility of homeschooling our kids, and then citing the mental health of their children as the primary reason schools simply must reopen, despite what Science is telling us and the fact that the virus has not gone anywhere.
What I am calling out is the very little that is being said by fellow parents about the personal risk they are asking teachers and staff to assume in physically reopening schools.
Nobody, least of all teachers, is saying schools need to be closed forever. Just that maybe August and September is too soon. Just that maybe teachers and schools could benefit from more time to assess and to plan. And in the meantime, maybe we parents can hang in there. Maybe we can listen more. Maybe we can be a little more patient. Maybe we can do our part to not only combat the virus but to support our communities and schools to make the best choices not just for us and our kids but also for our teachers and staff. Maybe we can see all of this as a small sacrifice in this moment of time.
So far, I know I have been extremely fortunate during this pandemic. My family and I are physically healthy. We have shelter and food. Do we have our share of worries? Of course we do. I’m not sure when I’ll be seeing my parents and brother or my husband’s side of the family again. They all live a plane ride away. I’m not sure if one of us possibly contracted the virus on our last walk through the city. I watched in horror as my son put his mouth on a NYC park bench. WHY, child, WHY!?!?!? I am 28 weeks pregnant and trying not to obsessively wonder just how much weaker my immune system is at the moment. After four months of disinfecting all groceries and packages coming into my home, I cannot stop, even though everyone now says it’s not necessary. I miss, like most all of us do, the freedom of normal day-to-day living without masks, sanitizer, and singing Happy Birthday twice dozens of times a day.
What I am personally not getting caught up on is worrying about my six-year-old’s mental health due to the fact that he has been out of school and away from friends for a few months.
Yes, it has been hard for kids. Yes, they should have been in classrooms with their peers and teachers. Yes, they should be able to run around and touch surfaces and hug friends. Yes, it will be an adjustment returning to school and having desks spaced six feet apart and being reminded to wash their hands and to not touch their faces. And — GASP — possibly having to wear masks indoors. Yes, our three long months of Summer without classes, camps, and playdates will be challenging, frustrating, and boring; I don’t know how I am going to make it through.
Oh, and yes, my kid will have a hard time making it through Summer, too.
But I sincerely believe that our kids, as a whole, are going to be just fine. This is especially true for kids who are fortunate enough to have a safe home and a loving family environment. We as their parents have a very important role here. It’s normal for kids to sometimes feel sad or bad these days. It would be strange if they didn’t.
These kinds of feelings do not necessarily equal anxiety, let alone an anxiety disorder.
The reality is that things are hard and scary for everyone right now, but it is to varying degrees. For those of us who have food, shelter, and our health though, we need to count our blessings and stay focused on being good role models.
This doesn’t mean we don’t have moments where we feel beaten down. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and feel the suffocating weight of who-knows-how-much-longer of being home and the burden of effortfully — and often in vain — filling the day with activities, with no reprieve from the relentless and repetitive demands of parenthood. I desperately miss the few hours that my son was in school, when I could write, see a friend for coffee, take a yoga class, or just walk around not thinking about too much.
Still, I refuse to get stuck on how this period of lockdown might ruin my kid’s mental health. I believe in the adaptability of the human mind and spirit, particularly when it comes to kids. What my kid needs right now is my strength, my support, my positivity, and my belief in his strength. He needs me to dig deep and to set the best example that I can. He never saw me wear a face mask before the pandemic. But every time he sees me wearing one now, I’m teaching him by example what is important. When he complains to me that wearing a mask is uncomfortable, I can sympathize with him. I can tell him how many more minutes until he can take it off. I can put it into context: “We’re wearing masks to help stop the spread and to keep other people safe. It’s important for us to do our part.” I’m not going to molly coddle him or tell him he doesn’t have to wear it because I’m worried it will emotionally traumatize him.
As someone who has survived actual childhood trauma with a mentally ill, suicidal mother and has been diagnosed with my own PTSD, depression, anxiety, and panic disorders, I cannot help but feel that many people throwing these terms around simply do not know what they are talking about.
Being inconvenienced, having to do something new or different, these are not things that result in trauma and damaged mental health! What kinds of kids are we raising if we can’t help them to be mentally flexible, especially when the reason behind this need is as serious as a virus affecting the entire world?
It’s obviously easy to feel happy, blessed, and grateful when things are going our way. But we cannot control circumstances to always go our way. Challenging times offer an opportunity to learn, to grow, to build resilience and character. To figure out how to be helpful. To be a problem solver, as my son and I say. Therein lies the real art of living and being human. How can we continue to show up as best as we can amidst everything that is happening right now?
What if, assuming we get to be among the lucky ones who stay healthy, in our homes, with food in our bellies, we looked at this time as a chance for us and our kids to build mental and emotional strength and stamina?
Nobody knows what’s going to ultimately happen with the virus. There does seem to be hope with vaccines in development. I have faith in Medicine and Science to eventually provide an impactful solution. I have faith that this too shall pass. In the meantime, the rest of us need to be patient and do what we can to help. We’re all trying to make our best decisions amidst a lot of uncertainty, but I hope that more of us can look at things not from our own self-concerned inconveniences, but rather in the context of the greater good.
For those of us that are parents: I firmly believe that our kids will benefit more from our teaching them to be mentally flexible and to think beyond their own wants, comforts, and what they’re accustomed to. Because this won’t be the last curveball or challenge that Life will throw their way. I want to do what I can to teach my children that they have the strength to take it all on and that they can make choices that positively impact others and our shared world.