You are not alone: Why sharing is key to our mental health

Who really knows what turmoil lies beneath the surface – and how it impacts our mental health?

I recently had a bit of a heart-to-heart with our eldest Isaac (12 years old) about how he’s feeling. It made me reflect on my experience of lockdown and how it affects me as well as him.

I must say Isaac appears to have coped well in terms of adapting to our new normal. All our kids have. It’s testament to how adaptable they are.

His school switched to remote working earlier than others: ten weeks ago now. Every day he logs on at 8:30am, surfaces briefly at lunchtime and works through to at least 3:30pm. He’s motivated and keeping up well.

For the most part, he seems quite happy and stable. But if we take our kids at face value, it’s so easy to miss the turmoil that lies beneath the surface. Just because they look okay doesn’t mean they are okay.

My mistake. I should have anticipated what was coming. I didn’t.

What lies beneath

The other day, Isaac was suddenly quite down and a little tearful. He expressed how he wished he was back at school, attending lessons with his classmates and interacting more with them. Even though he still has regular collaborative calls with them, he says it’s not the same.

He’s right.

Isaac is in Year 7, so he’d only known his classmates for six months before school sent them home. Assuming they don’t go back until September, six months will pass before he sees them again. That’s a long time in a fledgling school career.

He also said that he feels like there are so many things he should be doing or learning in lockdown that he’s not doing. This is a kid who’s doing a full day of school every day. He’s reading for an hour or more a day. And he’s squeezing in three or four long bike rides each week as part of a school Strava challenge. He’s even tried his hand at cooking a little bit.

To my eyes, he’s doing brilliantly. In his own eyes, he’s frustrated and feels he’s not doing enough.

Somehow I’d managed to miss all this.

You are not alone

As a parent, I need to make a point of commending his extra efforts. I need to remind him to focus not on unrealistic hopes but his actual achievements.

His behaviour hasn’t always been great. But that’s par for the course for a 12-year-old boy even in the best of circumstances. Like any near-teen, he has ups and downs and he’s exploring boundaries. But he is hard on himself and feels he shouldn’t ever be like this.

I told him that (a) nobody’s perfect, (b) it’s natural he will fray at the edges in this situation and (c) he’s not alone. Other kids go through the same, often worse.

And so do grown-ups.

We’ve all struggled at times over the past two months, children and parents alike. And while we mostly conceal the negativity and try to keep the mood positive, it also helps to let the kids know that we have our dark moments too.

So I reassured Isaac that he shouldn’t be so hard on himself. Yes, he can be better at recognising when he’s overstepped the mark. Yes, he can do more to restrain himself when he realises it’s happening. But he shouldn’t beat himself up too much. He’s only human.

Most of all, I told him how glad I was that he felt he could up to me and his mum about how he feels. That’s healthy. So often the simple act of sharing helps lift the burden.

So in return, I shared with him how I feel. I let him know that I have plenty of ‘meh’ moments too and times when I’m not proud of my behaviour either.

As the old saying goes: a problem shared is a problem halved, right?

Six rules for coping

Having discussed how lockdown was affecting both of us, I laid down six ground rules for the future:

1. It’s okay to feel less than perfect.

2. Don’t bottle up the negativity and hide how you really feel. Talk about it.

3. Don’t set unreasonable expectations and compare yourself to others. Yes, some people are doing things that you wish you were doing. But it cuts both ways too.

4. Don’t take your achievements for granted. Celebrate every win.

5. Everyone has a bad hour or a bad day from time to time. It occurs even in normal circumstances. It’s going to happen even more in a stressful situation like this.

6. Most of all: be kind. Don’t just say it. Do it. You’d be surprised how often other people have similar issues to you. A little empathy goes a long way towards making everyone feel better.

I told him all these things – and realised that it’s not only good advice for him. I can do better by following each of these rules myself. It’s easy to talk the talk, harder to walk the walk.

I know, I know. That’s not really a blinding epiphany. But it’s a moment, okay? Sometimes we need these little moments to pause, dust ourselves off and get on with life again.

So that’s my resolution going forward: follow my own advice and be a better role model. And when I inevitably falter, acknowledge it, talk about it and move on.

Simple to say, harder to do. Wish me luck.


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