Guest post by Dr Helen Kelly
There’s a big conversation happening in the media at the moment about the potential impact of the COVID crisis on the emotional health of our young people. Some talk of an epidemic of mental health problems brought about by months of isolation and uncertainty, loss of schooling and the impact on parents of the economic fallout.
Others feel this preoccupation with mental health is bogus and point to the natural resilience of children as evidence that they are coping. We often talk about childhood resilience as if it is a superpower and expect and presume that stress rolls off children like water off a duck’s back. But are children really that resilient or is it just a myth?
Current thinking in child development and neuroscience increasingly suggests that children are not naturally resilient. In fact there is plenty of evidence to show that children are particularly vulnerable to emotional and behavioural issues brought on by stress and trauma and that this can significantly impact their emotional lives and physical health into adulthood. Young children in particular are highly impressionable as their brains are still developing.
Researchers in a number of fields have identified how high levels of stress and trauma can change a child’s brain chemistry, brain architecture and even gene expression. These changes have been linked to a number of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer as well as poor mental health. A large epidemiological study in the US in 2009, found that life expectancy was reduced by as much as 20 years among adults who experienced six or more particular types of abuse or household dysfunction as children.
So where does the myth of the resilient child come from? Children have not yet learned how to process complex emotions, neither do they have the life experience to place what is happening to them into a wider context and so it is difficult for them to understand the impacts of severe stress or trauma. As educators, we also know that children do not express themselves in the same way as adults. Even if they are able to understand how they are feeling, they are likely to lack the language or verbal skills to articulate this and so remain silent. This silence may lead adults to believe that children are coping when they are not. Children also have the wonderful capacity to smile, laugh and play in the face of adversity, giving the impression that everything is fine when this may be far from the truth.
Why Do We Perpetuate the Myth?
Let’s face it, it is extremely convenient for adults to believe the myth of the resilient child because the truth is too painful to bear. Children have little control over their own lives and so almost everything they experience is brought about as a result of adult behaviour. We do not want to acknowledge that our own vulnerabilities and dysfunctions as humans may have a crushing impact on the children in our lives.
The truth is that children are not naturally resilient. They have not yet learned the skills they need to navigate the world. When something frightening happens, they do what they can to cope but they do not have a magical store of resilience to draw upon, instead they mostly internalise how they feel or they sometimes act out but they may be more ill-equipped than we think to regain their previous equilibrium. Children are building their outlook on life with every experience they have and the hardships they suffer inevitably impact on their psyches. It’s not a coincidence that most adult therapy eventually gets around to exploring our childhood experiences and how they are affecting our current problems.
So what does this tell us about the possible impact of the global pandemic on the mental health of our children? The Co-Space Study by Oxford University, which looks at how families are coping during the COVID-19 crisis, has found that the number of children in the UK who would meet the threshold for clinical diagnosis had increased by 35% since March. The study identifies a domino-effect of factors including elevated family stress about finances, uncertainty and social restrictions, as well as anxieties around relationships in school and learning. It’s time to finally put the myth of the resilient child to bed and face the uncomfortable truth that how we respond to the current crisis may significantly impact our children and could shape the adults they become.
Helen Kelly is a researcher, writer and speaker in the field of school wellbeing. A former international school principal, she retired from her work in schools in 2020 to pursue research and writing. She has a special interest in school leader wellbeing which was the subject of her doctoral thesis. Helen continues her research, posts weekly to her blog The Positive Principal www.drhelenkelly.com and writes for several publications.
P.S. If you have any comments in response to Helen’s blog post, please post below! We’d love to hear your thoughts.