Child Mental Health

Erika Bocknek, Ph.D. discusses what parents can do to help their children’s mental health during a pandemic and when it comes to back to school.

We talk about parenting children’s emotional development as though it is stop-motion animation: manipulate each frame, small changes each time, and the entire reel will give the illusion of independent motion. Under stress, we are more likely to examine each frame, make adjustments and control the storylines.

But here’s what’s true if we step back. Disaster teaches us that we are animators whose characters have leapt from our pages. They live in worlds more like Coco than Steamboat Willie — worlds filled with color and dimension and characters beyond our reach who will share their own truths. They will have their hearts broken, and they will break other people’s hearts.

Still, we search for the “right” way to parent. We know a single pen stroke can make a child different from the next and the world through which they walk will change them, too. But we try to do what’s “right.”

Each day, I hear someone ask: “How will we protect children’s mental health?” This has been an issue long before the weight of this pandemic settled in. People are stressed, lonely and isolated, and that was before we had to stay 6 feet apart.

Perhaps the pandemic has opened this conversation up in earnest. So many more Americans than ever before feel the weight of how policies and related practices impact mental health in children.

What’s certain is that, as a collective society, we know this: Healthy relationships matter most. We may finally realize just how much children need connection with us, and with the wider world, to thrive. They need this connection not only to fill their time but, indeed, they need it in order to be whole. We are forced to reimagine connection and, in doing so, we may unlock the secrets to resilience and mental wellness.

Erika Bocknek
Erika Bocknek

Alternative to the Classroom

Connection will not be guaranteed in classrooms in the fall, where students sit behind plexiglass and teachers attempt the stop-motion version of normalcy in an abnormal world. Nor is connection guaranteed behind tablets at kitchen tables with uncertain internet. 

In both these scenarios, the social rules have changed, and the kinds of interactions that matter most for the full-color version of children’s developmental trajectories have been changed as well.

Learning pods engineered by parents are moving in the direction of change. What is a learning pod? In some cases, families are banding together to share childcare and pitch in on tutors while staying connected to their regular schools through remote learning plans. Other families are seeking more flexibility and accessing homeschool curricula, hiring teachers to administer lessons to small groups of kids.

These plans for pods resolve some problems by offering safe, face-to-face interaction between children and adults, and they supplement childcare in many cases, a huge source of stress for families. However, they may exacerbate other problems at the community level, including increasing social and educational disparities based on resources. 

Learning pods may also reduce variability in children’s peer exposure, an important element of the school environment and one that is important to optimal social and emotional development. Institutions can and should work with families to help emphasize broader inclusion and supplement learning pods with support. Children who receive special education and learning support at school are particularly left out of our current conversations. 

Learning pods may signal a viable future but will fall short without partnership from institutions to meet the full scope of children’s learning and social emotional needs. We will learn, as we already have, that we are a society in progress who is still finding solutions. When we center children’s mental health in these conversations, we will ask, what matters most?

What Children Need

Even in a pandemic, children need opportunities to leap. They need chances to build their identities, both in response to their individual lives, and in response to the color in the world around them. They need to solve problems with others, learn from interpersonal differences and make sense of their developing sense of self. They need creative expression. They need to know they have strengths inside them to confront challenges, and they need to know who to ask when they are without the right skills. 

They need their parents to notice the best in them, practice joy and make this shared connection the basis for who they will become. They need their parents to be well.

For generations, group-based education and care have served as an important setting for these areas of development, though research shows they are only one context in which children develop. We know that early childhood education, in particular, helps children make significant gains across areas of development, with impacts identified into adulthood. However, with the world of education changed so drastically during COVID-19, it’s time to drill down on what matters most for children and consider how to deliver the supports and resources they need in the current environment. One-size-fits all approaches will fall short.

Relationships are at the heart of all learning outcomes. When families must adapt and help children practice important social skills within a more restricted set of interactions, those interactions must be prioritized and given maximum support. Individuals, organizations and communities must partner to identify local needs and come together in ways that make the relationships in which children will thrive as healthy as possible.

Our children’s lives will be different from our own and different from what we imagined for them. It’s our imaginations that hold us back from the kind of solutions that will grow with them into the world they occupy. If the buildings and the computers inhibit their growth, we must give them opportunities and resources to leap into the next liminal space where crisis, coping and solutions form adaptation. 

Erika London Bocknek, Ph.D., is a licensed family therapist and associate professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. She directs the Family Resilience Laboratory at Wayne State, is associate editor of the Infant Mental Health Journal and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Infancy and Adversity and Resilience Science.

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