Op-Ed: Can Kids Ever Be Kids Again?
— Any return to normal can’t neglect youth mental health support – by Nandini Ahuja, MSW April 30, 2021
The past year has been scary, unpredictable, and tumultuous, and many of us have been left wondering what the path forward will look like — especially for our children.
For kids, from infants and toddlers to older teens, their parents have become educators, educators have become therapists, and therapists have become full-time case workers.
Because of this, we have seen into the lives of kids with greater clarity than we were able to before the pandemic, and we now know with complete certainty just how much our kids are struggling.
I am a licensed therapist working with The New York Foundling’s School Based Mental Health Team.
Since March 2020, my colleagues and I have worked day and night in partnership with parents, teachers, principals, medical experts, caregivers, and other trusted leaders to make sure students stay afloat.
And what I can say is this: every adolescent and young adult has felt the negative and harsh impact of this horrific pandemic, and regardless of how they have coped for the last 12 months, they will face further challenges in their return to normalcy, whatever that may look like.
Many of us are preparing to return to normal life as early as next fall, which will bring joy and excitement.
For a lot of students, this will mean a true return to childhood and having more freedom and independence.
While at home under quarantine, many kids stepped into their parents’ shoes Monday through Friday to help teach, feed, and care for younger siblings or older relatives in their home.
Everyone, even children, felt the impact of income loss and financial hardships more than ever before.
Though the city may have provided tech to some families, thousands of kids were left without Wi-Fi and working devices, making at-home remote learning impossible.
And perhaps most importantly, the ongoing social and political conflict that played out on the news, at our dinner tables, in protests, and even in the classroom added yet another layer of stress to kids’ lives.
Couple all of this with social isolation and the regular ups and downs of adolescence, and you can only begin to imagine how thrilled most of these kids are to get back into their “normal life.”
So, what short-term solutions have we installed to help kids cope?
Teachers and social workers have implemented personalized, one-on-one mental health check-ins with students, virtual group counseling, and mental health days to give kids a break from the stressors of school.
Schools have worked to become community centers and staff have essentially become social service providers.
These tactics have been largely effective in helping us care for kids who demonstrated mental health challenges before the pandemic as well as those who exhibited symptoms for the first time.
These strategies have also helped us — as adults — see clearly into the struggles these kids are grappling with, while also helping kids connect with one another and feel less alone.
This has left many of us wondering, why weren’t we doing this all along?
While most of us are prepared to let kids be kids again, we are not fully prepared to respond to the long-term mental health consequences created by the pandemic.
While it’s critical we reignite the joy in these kids’ lives, we must also remember that the effects of this pandemic will be long-lasting, latent, or even buried by some adolescents.
As we transition kids back to normalcy, we should rely on the same tools we used to get them through the pandemic.
Yes, we want to return to normal and move forward with our lives, but doing so without care could be incredibly damaging to young people.
So, what will it take to make this happen? At a baseline, we must encourage our communities to provide space for open discussions with kids about their mental wellbeing.
This may not look like one-on-one weekly check-ins with every student but taking the time now to incorporate emotional learning into the classroom and into our home lives will make this transition healthier and happier for everyone.
What if educators implement regular mental health days for students, or even incorporate short wellness breaks into the school day?
What if we coordinate monthly mental health-focused assemblies to normalize discussions of emotional wellbeing at school?
Once we’re back in person, it will feel like there’s not enough time for this, but we must make this a priority.
There is one silver lining: kids are resilient.
They are even more resilient than many of the adults in their lives.
However, while we celebrate their strength, we have to make just as much space for them to heal and take the time to support them for the months and years ahead.
As we start to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, our children will need more help — not less — to ensure a brighter future.
Nandini Ahuja, MSW, is a mental health therapist with The New York Foundling’s School Based Mental Health program, and works at a high school in New York City. Nandini is also the author of three children’s books: Rise Up and Write It, It’s Big Sister Time!, and It’s Big Brother Time!, which published in Winter 2021.
Last Updated April 30, 2021