The closer we get to the dawn of a new year, the more prevalent mental health is on everyone’s minds. This facet of health has been catching fire for a number of years, however 2020 seems to have been the most recent kryptonite. In one way or another, everyone’s mental well-being has been tickled this year. The game of Jumanji has left its mark on millions upon millions.
I want to pay mind to the mental health of our children. It’s easy to write off their hardships in the noise of our own obstacles by dismissing their experiences due to the lack of bills they are responsible for or the increased time for play. However, this is something I want to challenge.
Perhaps, they’ve experienced a completely different version of the hell we’ve all been journeying through.
Let me paint you a picture.
Imagine the world of a present-day fifth grader in February of 2020. You’re king or queen of the school, the eldest in the building. Deposits for the end of the year fifth grade field trip are due next week, and you get butterflies in your tummy thinking about the middle school tours that are scheduled for April. It’s Tuesday, and early release is tomorrow. You’re excited because Wednesdays are the days Mom picks you up from school to grab a snack from the gas station before your regular tennis competitions. Life is safe. Life is predictable. You’re confident in your abilities to be an A/B honor roll student and climb up the tennis ladder to the “teens” group VERY soon.
Fast forward to April. Your world looks and feels VERY different. The joy you felt at the start of spring break has quickly devolved into confusion as you listen to Mom curse under her breath trying to set up your online school platform. You’re distracted because Mom and Dad have been bickering more lately, and Mom started crying again watching the news that morning. You’re confused by what’s going on outside of your house. While it looks peaceful outside your window, as it’s a nice Spring day and the sun is begging for you to come out and play with your friends, you keep hearing the news cackle anxiously about “death tolls” and the “killer virus”. Your frustration is building as each boring, lonely day passes. You’re so disappointed because Mom told you yesterday the fifth grade field trip you’ve been daydreaming about since 3rd grade has been cancelled, and the middle school tours had been wiped off the calendar. If only you could meet with your teacher before school for them to help you with math in that special way that makes sense, or feel the sun on your cheeks as you focus on your backhand on the tennis courts with your best friend.
It’s September, and you’re so sick of the stomachache that haunts you every morning before school. Because you never got to do the middle school tour, the butterflies turned into knots in your tummy and the sense of dread consumed you. You nervously walk into the new, foreign middle school building with a mask that keeps moving up into your eyes. You look around and everyone is covered up and muddled by the same obnoxious masks. Your heart is racing because Mom and Dad repeatedly told you not to touch your face or eyes or other people and something about washing your hands all the time but you so wish you could adjust your mask without touching your face. You finally find your first class and you’re so exhausted by your stress you’re quivering. The classroom looks lonely as every desk is wrapped in a plastic shield. You were already having trouble hearing people because of the masks and now you have to sit in bubbles. This pattern goes on for 7 class periods. By the time you get home you’re so unexhausted by the novelty, fear, stress, and unpredictability you want to dissolve into tears. Mom chipperly asks you to set the table for dinner, which sets you off because why can’t she understand that you jut can’t do one more thing without screaming “SOMEBODY PLEASE HEAR ME”.
Our children have been exposed to novel hardships that us adults cannot resonate with. Sure, we can empathize, however we will never truly understand their experiences or traumas this year has delivered. Their mental health has been challenged and jeopardized. Kiddos are having difficulty adjusting back into brick-and-mortar school environments. Anxiety that has plagued us adults for months has left some of our children just as crippled. The sense of dread that is reported is consuming and exhausting. Hopelessness for the return to normalcy and predictability is thick in the air. Loneliness that has been a second-hand result of social distancing stings. Spontaneous quarantines only fuel the feeling of being out of control.
It is so hard to be a child right now.
So, please hear me when I write this.
Debunk the myths about mental health. They are not “too young”. You will not “give them ideas”.
Because here’s the thing.
Our children were exposed to mature content far too early for anyone’s’ comfort levels prior to 2020. The content that we were exposed to in high school is floating around middle school now, and sometimes even late elementary. I say this from firsthand experience. Our children will fill in their own blanks regardless of the source. What is going to be vital to their resilience and their mental wellness are facts and knowledge. Open and honest conversations about having anxiety vs an anxiety disorder, depression, distress and eustress, and adjustment will create the most powerful and secure knowledge base we can gift our kiddos. Knowledge is power here, folks. Mental health does not have to be painted in a light that is dark and scary. Mental health needs to be painted in the same bright and inviting light as physical health is.
So, please do not try and “shield” your children away from the mental health conversation. Debunk the myths and aid in the filling in of their own blanks. Better you than the “peanut gallery”.