The post-summer mental health challenge

We’re heading into another phase of coronavirus, parenting-wise, and we need to gather all our forces to face it and help our children negotiate it.

Teenager wearing a blue hoodie looks to camera


It was a huge struggle to get to the end of summer term and, for many parents, the summer holidays have been challenging in their own way, with holiday schemes, etc, scarce, quarantines, job losses, the exams fiasco and many other factors. They have also been, for many, a pause between one school-related phase of Covid and the next. The need to prepare – as much as preparation is possible – is important because this coronavirus thing is perhaps the ultimate test of family resilience.

With everything that families have been through in the last months, mental health for many is on the floor. And it’s very hard to address the mental health of children if parents themselves are struggling. For many parents, the return to school will be a chance to share some of that strain.

All the teachers I have spoken to want to help – they, of all people, know the value of their job – but many feel a knot of anxiety in their stomachs about what they will face, how they will deal with all the social inequalities that Covid has deepened and also about the potential risks involved in returning, particularly if someone in their family has underlying health issues. It’s hard to know what is going on with children, particularly teenagers, at the best of times – even if you have a really good relationship. They may not want to worry you, they may think you won’t understand, they may not even understand themselves how low they are feeling. Anxiety about one thing can link up with another to form a cyclone of worry and it’s hard to know where to begin to tackle it.

Not being at school can cause worry, but so can anticipating being back. Exam pressures are enormous, especially after this year’s debacle. Two of my children are doing major exams – GCSEs or A Levels – next year. The mocks are causing huge concern, given what happened this year. And they are coming fast. A teacher friend spoke to them at the weekend and told them that their mental health was much more important than the exams. They needed to hear that – and from someone who isn’t me. They’ve spent the whole of secondary school being told that exams are the be all and end all of life, that if they have a few days off sick their percentage rates will plummet and they see the year above them getting arbitrary results, marked down based on an algorithm. We know that having some sense of control over situations aids mental health so how has the exams fiasco made next year’s as well as this year’s cohort feel? And what can we do as parents to help them?

Mental health support services have been overrun in the last months – I’ve tried a few. Parents have often been on their own, in many cases working while dealing with not just school work but everything else that parenting in a pandemic involves, including, in some cases, helping children through the bereavement process. This is in no way over yet – the next months will be challenging and fast-changing. As we don’t know when all this will be over and what over might mean, we need to look after ourselves as much as we can, give ourselves staging posts to recover our forces and keep on going.

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