Rising anxiety levels and decreasing resilience among children has been a hot topic among professionals in recent years, with over-scheduled lives and “we’ll fix it” parenting among the factors blamed.
That was before life as we knew it changed utterly.
Coronavirus has become a real reason for every one of us to worry. Families are having to cope with sudden bereavement, loss of income, empty calendars and being confined to their homes, with no parent able to make the pandemic fallout go away for their children.
So, what is the impact of all this likely to be on the much-lamented lack of resilience among children? Will the upcoming generation emerge with better coping skills or will many have fallen into the anxiety abyss?
Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Services, has been saying for years that we're all time poor and that children need boredom classes and to just switch off from the busyness of life.
“I didn’t expect it in this dosage though,” he remarks on the effect of the pandemic restrictions. It’s a common myth, he says, that adversity causes resilience. “Yes, we can display our resilience through adversity and, if we don’t have adversity, it is very hard to show our resilience, but it does not necessarily create it.”
For the first week or so of the social shutdown, it was quiet among his client base. For some who suffer from anxiety, there was an element of “welcome to my world” he says, as the whole population had to adjust to living with fear and uncertainty.
But the longer the pandemic restrictions drag on, the more he fears for people’s mental health.
Mentally unhealthy time
“This is genuinely a really difficult, mentally unhealthy time for people and, emotionally, relationships are under pressure. Everything is the antithesis of what you would try to encourage for a healthy mental space” – such as social interaction, routine and productivity.
“The longer that goes on, the more difficult that will be. We might have an anxiety and mental health pandemic to manage after this as well, that’s the worry.”
When we don’t have the skills to develop resilience, it is not going to happen of its own accord, says Noctor, author of Cop On – What it is and Why your Child Needs it to Survive and Thrive in Today’s World.
Their lives were taken from them and the majority are managing without too much disgruntlement and they are coping really, really well
Resilience is both interpersonal and intrapersonal in nature. While there are opportunities now to work on the latter, children are becoming “deskilled”, he suggests, in the sort of resilience they need in coping with interaction among peers. “It’s like trying to get match fit on your exercise bike at home.”
However, from what he sees, children do seem to be doing well through this. “They deserve a clap in the streets as well. Their lives were taken from them and the majority are managing without too much disgruntlement and they are coping really, really well. So maybe they were more resilient than we gave them credit for.”
This experience we are all living through is about building resilience, says Anne Tansey, director of the National Educational Psychological Service (Neps). "Resilience is about coping in the face of adversity. You build resilience by getting through a situation and hopefully most of our kids, when this is over, will be saying to their mums and dads, you know what, it was really tough but we did it."
She believes a sense of self-efficacy and community efficacy – all in it together and we stuck with it – will be a positive outcome.
All adults have been learning to live with a heightened sense of anxiety about the threat of Covid-19 and the frustration of social restrictions. Tansey stresses the importance for parents of managing themselves and being a model in coping behaviour – “without beating yourself up when it doesn’t work out”.
This helps children to figure out how they might manage themselves.
All the psychological literature suggests that the two things that are really important for a child’s wellbeing is having secure attachment and a parent/guardian/carer who has good emotional regulation, says Prof Sinéad McGilloway, founder director of Maynooth University’s Centre for Mental Health and Community Research. “They are paramount and even more important in a crisis like this.”
Where a parent models anxiety, the kid reflects it back
Younger children need the reassurance of a calm environment. “They are sponges and see and hear much more than we give them credit for.” She too stresses the importance of “modelling”, which is a key principle of any parenting programme.
“Where a parent models anxiety, the kid reflects it back. It is really important parents make extra attempts to model calmness in the current situation. Try to be grounded and keep perspective.”
She believes today’s children may well be more resilient than we give them credit for and that, with supportive and caring parenting, they will emerge from all of this having had a lesson in resilience.
However, she worries about what the pandemic will mean for those not growing up in a nurturing environment, such as those living in the midst of domestic violence or where one or both parents have mental health conditions.
“The challenges must be magnified three or four times for these kids – and that is going to create difficulties for them and for services picking up the pieces down the line. That is something we should all be concerned about.”
Being bored is a very important part of their development because when they are bored, they will end up doing something interesting
Psychotherapist and Cotton Wool Kids author Stella O’Malley has written extensively about the age of anxiety, pre-coronavirus. While the forced slowdown and increased family time have a positive side, any benefits, she stresses, very much depend on the individual child and how their home life is managed.
“I think it is probably going to be good for an awful lot of children but I would make exceptions for children with special needs. It could be very, very difficult for them.”
Hanging out with the family and just “being” will be good for a lot of children, she says. Parents should not feel they have to entertain them. “Being bored is a very important part of their development because when they are bored, they will end up doing something interesting. We can be obstacles to their creativity.”
There were a lot of over-scheduled children, dashing from one thing to another “and now they are not”, she points out. “While parents have tried to do home-schooling, you feel, thankfully, the energy has been taken out of the intensity of that.”
Children, by nature, are resilient, she argues, “they just needed people to take the foot off their shoulder”, to allow them to show resilience.
However, her concern is for naturally anxious children, whose parents are unable to manage their own anxiety, and they become a “corona-obsessed household”. She has observed “extraordinary fear – you might as well have Xs on doors, that the plague is coming. That has been awful for some families; those children will not fare well.”
O’Malley also cautions against parents filling their days with frenetic activity; give yourself a break from feeling you have to be productive. “Never again will there be a chance where we pause, look around – what is wrong and what is not in our lives. To go through this massive global pause and you’re not changed because you spent it cleaning out the back room, you have missed an opportunity.”
Read: Tips to turn negativity positive