Our kids are telling us they are not alright. Just not in words.
They are struggling to sleep. Some are even back to wetting the bed during the night even though they have not done that in months. They are juggling a new school year with classmates and teachers they only have known through their laptop and webcam. They are eating lunch in an assigned seat with strangers socially distanced around the table. They celebrated a birthday waving from their lawn to a caravan of mini-vans and SUV’s filled with friends they could not play with. They may be engaging in physical aggression- unable to regulate their body and mind. They have not told you but they are missing Grandpa’s hugs more than they have let on. They are getting mad at things they would have never gotten mad over before. They are crying and they can’t tell you why. They are struggling to focus. They are highly anxious. They are overeating and under-eating.
And then we have our sons and daughters who are neurodiverse or that have unique needs who are navigating unknown waters within their own journey of disability but now we as the caregivers are faced with the lengthy referral process of finding specialists, scheduling within limited in-person appointments, month-long waitlists, and locating the right mental health providers that are knowledgeable with all the layers of our children. That is a whole other layer.
Our kids are telling us they are not alright. They are telling us in all the ways they know. A challenging, unwanted, or new behavior is always a sign of an unmet need. And those developing brains are struggling to process all the new, the hard, the different, and even returning back to the normal they knew.
Look at the word trauma for a minute. When you think of trauma you are more than likely thinking of major life-changing events that either happen around someone or to someone – horrible things such as death, abuse, starvation, witnessing violence, or substance abuse. The exact definition of trauma is “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” so our first reactions would be correct.
Let’s take the definition to the next step. Based on years of research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) starting in the 1990s, we now know that trauma or traumatic experiences paired with associated factors can cause toxic stress (living in a perpetual state of stress due to ongoing trauma). Toxic stress changes the brain and can affect learning, decision making, handling hard situations, and sustained attention. (CDC)
Starting from the moment that we drove our children away from their school in March – and never returning – they have experienced repeated patterns of loss, uncertainty, and (for some) it was and is traumatic. And they are grieving. The list of those losses is long. They look different for each child and they are real.
The loss of consistency, expectations, routine, friendships, social play, physical touch, or participation in their favorite activities. Medical appointments and therapy sessions were not just postponed but canceled indefinitely. Some children experienced a loss of financial security due to a family member’s furlough or an immediate termination. Some children lost a loved one and were unable to say goodbye. Some families had to postpone funerals.
When you pair the loss that all our communities face from this pandemic with associated factors, you will have deeper levels of trauma. Those associated factors now include being victims of racial discrimination and brutality, living in a food desert and facing food insecurities, bullying, repeated discrimination based on sexual orientation, living in racially-segregated neighborhoods, surviving abuse in the home that goes unreported due to DCS workers not being able to have in-home visits or being a child in the foster care system. And now, those children have not had the refuge and consistency found within the walls of their classroom and school for over six months.
Whether our children have experienced one of these things or are facing all of these things, our job is to listen to what they are saying they NEED during this time. And the majority of the time we will be interpreting these needs through non-verbal cues because our kids may not be able to describe and label all of what they are feeling. Let’s be honest – this is just as real for adults as it is for our kids.
If they broke their arm we would find the nearest hospital and not think twice about it. If they were diagnosed with a disease we would find the right specialists to guide them in treatment.
It is the same process with trauma and strengthening mental resilience. It should be taken just as seriously because if we ignore these red flags or focus on the perceived stigma of “what will the neighbors say when they find out my eight year old sees a therapist”, then we could be potentially placing our child at risk of developing unhealthy coping skills, strained relationships with peers and adults, and other health-related issues. Remember, seeking mental health providers for our children does not automatically present a diagnosis on them. We are raising children amidst waters we have never swam before. This is new territory for all. The bigger our village, the stronger the path to healing will be.
I think it is imperative to point out a few things here. We must acknowledge that having the opportunity to receive mental healthcare services as well as having health insurance to either partially cover or fully cover services is a privilege in this country. If you find yourself and your family without insurance during this time or relying on the few providers that accept Medicaid, do not let that roadblock stop you. Reach out to your child’s teacher, school counselor, and even the school nurse for resources and numbers to call. Many school systems here in Indiana have in-house therapists that can service children during the school day. You are not alone in this.
I remember very clearly the moment I realized that love was not enough. A thousand kisses, a million hugs, or having a house full of the best toys will never hold enough power to erase pain. Now, love and positive connections do make new neuropathways in the brain but it does not erase. My love, as deep and intense and steadfast as it is for my children, will serve as the catalyst – the springboard – towards encouraging them to advocate for their own needs physically and mentally.
Until that day comes when they can do that, my love will be found in making phone calls, researching treatments and interventions, advocating around a conference table with teachers and administrators, making decisions for the good of their mental well being, sending out an SOS on social media groups, connecting with other parents and caregivers who are looking for the same answers, and carving out specific time for my own teletherapy sessions. (I’m fairly certain if I ever win an Oscar one day, I will thank all of my therapists FIRST and foremost for their unwavering support.)
Your love for your child is bigger than any stigma or perceived illusion of what emotional and mental health should look like or what it should include. Your love is also big enough to handle a diagnosis, constructive advice, change, or owning the understanding that your child may need to process the hard moments of life with someone other than you.
If you need permission Mama, you have it. Your children are giving it to you.
October 4th – October 10th is Mental Health Awareness Week. We know that we are at our best when we take care of ourselves first. Never before has the world of parenting felt more upside down as it does now. Just as we advocate for our children – advocate for yourself and for your own emotional well being. You deserve it!