School concrete crisis – another blow to young people’s mental health?
For many parents and children this week may have had the familiar pang of those early Covid lockdown weeks. Unexpected news throwing the next few weeks (and maybe months) into disarray and dismay for many families. If you found home schooling and the Covid lockdown difficult – you may have found the news reports on the school concrete crisis surprisingly triggering – even if this crisis isn’t directly impacting on you.
So, why is this so hard and what can we do as parents to protect our children from a disrupted start to the term?
Just like Covid, safety is a key concern leading to the closure and partial closure of schools during the school concrete crisis. Naturally, this is a new anxiety that parents and children have not had to consider before: “Could my child be hurt by falling debris at school today?“
In a world of constant focus on the negative possibilities we find ourselves again in the hands of others to ensure that the risks and measures to mitigate against them are proportionate to the situation. It can’t be easy as government ministers and school leaders grapple between the risks of disrupting children’s learning and wellbeing versus their physical safety. A familiar dilemma during the pandemic. However, unlike when they made the Covid decisions, they now know the cost to children when their education is interfered with, as seen in the significant increase in youth mental health difficulties, school absenteeism and challenges in learning post Covid. Schools, services, parents and our children are still experiencing the fallout.
Add to this the exhaustion that parents and school staff are feeling because of the increase in pressure on them to contain the additional needs of young people as well as manage the extra challenges they are facing in their daily lives (like the cost of living) – and you get a perfect storm for increased stress and challenges with mental health – for adults and young people alike.
So, how can we protect ourselves and our young people as we continue to navigate the rollercoaster of uncertainties in this modern world?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that as human’s our natural tendency is to focus on the negative, especially if we are already feeling stressed and overwhelmed. This can be as simple as what we pay attention to in the news as well as the words we hear and focus on in our own mind. These worries can often get stuck on a loop (rumination), trigger our stress response and leave us feeling distressed. Meaning worry can consume our energy at a time we need our energy to deal with difficulties and be available to our children. This becomes even more of a challenge if our fears and anxieties are not proportionate to the likelihood of the thing we are worrying about happening.
If you are finding yourself worrying about things that you can do something about, try to step away from worry towards problem solving with these simple steps:
Notice the worry (sometimes worry becomes so automatic for us we don’t even realise we are doing it!)
Ask yourself “What am I worrying about?” The details are important. For example, if you are worried about school not starting this week as planned distinguish between childcare and work pressure worries and worries about the impact on your child’s learning? Write them down. This helps things feel more manageable and immediately soothes the brain. Quantifying worry makes it feel less overwhelming.
What action could you take to resolve some of these problems. Write down lots of ideas. Consider What? When? How? Be realistic about barriers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others if you need it.
Consider what can I do right now to address these concerns – complete these tasks.
Consider what can I later. Write down your plan.
Next time the worry crops up – remind yourself you have a plan, the worry has done its job of helping you to take action, so you can let worry go.
There will be many things that you are worrying about where you may not have any influence or control over the outcome (like whether your child’s school will open or close unexpectedly). Simply trying to block these worries or unhelpful thoughts does not help. Often talking them through with a trusted other can help put them in perspective. We may be having a disproportionate worry about a very unlikely event. We can therefore let it go and change the focus of our attention onto something else – often just moving our bodies and doing something grounding and physical can help our bodies and minds feel more settled.
It maybe that our anxieties are well founded and the difficult feelings we are experiencing are justified and important. They often reflect concerns we have because our values, what is important to us, are in jeopardy. So, for example, hearing my child’s school may be shut can immediately make me feel sad for my child that their first day in their new school is not going to be what they had planned for, that they will miss out on learning with their classmates and will struggle to engage with online learning which could impact on their future. Feeling sad, even angry about this, is warranted. However, it is what we do with the sadness and anger that is important. Do I use it to find ways to move towards what is important to me (talk to my child about their disappointment in a balanced and validating way, help them think about ways they can connect with their friends or other important people so they don’t feel isolated) or away from what is important to me (spiral into a place of helpless frustration, push others away, become focused on self-criticism and fears that I cannot cope with giving my child what they need, blame others).
As our feelings spiral it's important to remember that this crisis is different to Covid.
A lockdown for our children meant no physical contact with the outside world. The current crisis means an impact on schooling for some children, but young people are still free to meet up with friends and family and take part in all the activities they usually enjoy. If your child is having to do online schooling, find ways to help them engage with friends and activities in person so they are reminded that this is not the same as lockdown.
For most of us our work was also impacted during Covid and although that meant it was easier to stay at home and look after our children, it also meant a lot of people were dealing with loss of income and fears of redundancy. Although some people’s work is less accommodating many employers are familiar with supporting working from home, so likely to be flexible during these unexpected changes. Family and friends are also more able to help out, in a way they were unable to during lockdown if working from home is not an option for you.
This time will pass. We now know that as difficult as these things can feel at the time, they pass, and things go back to normality. Explore with yourself and your children the important things you learned about during the lockdown, the strengths and resilience you showed despite how hard it was, so that you can remind each other how courageous we can be in the face of challenges. Often our availability as parents is highest on our children’s priority list, so spending small bits of quality time together (even if it is just a walk or 20-minutes watching your child’s favourite TV show together) can make a huge difference.
Look after yourself and each other. Additional disruption and increased stressors, mean that we need to give ourselves and each other more time to do activities that help us de-stress and stay connected with others. The world is becoming increasingly focused on unrealistic expectations of how we can keep performing despite the challenges we face. It can also be a brutal and critical place where blame is banded around with little consideration on the impact of a person’s limitations as a human being.