Kate Silverton: My fear for our children’s mental health

Home schooling is causing stress in millions of homes across the UK. BBC newsreader Kate Silverton, who is also a trainee child psychotherapist and a mother-of-two, has like most parents found lockdown a very challenging time.

After speaking to other parents about their own stresses and fears, she warns about the damage the pandemic could do to children’s mental health.

Home schooling may have been a success for some but in my overall experience – and that of the parents I have spoken to – those successes have been few and far between.

Whether at the school gates, or in the counselling arena, mums and dads tell me they cannot cope. I would go so far to say that anyone who thinks working and schooling young children from home has been a success is sadly ill-informed.

My husband and I have tried to make the memories of this time more joyful and positive. So we camped in our (courtyard) garden and have had more late nights, cuddled up watching movies than we would have done previously. However, it has inevitably been a very demanding time for everyone.

When people ask how I am doing, I often joke that I am “surviving not thriving”. When the work calls start, it is very hard to be there for our children.

Running feral

So many working parents have shared with me stories of having to work on constant Zoom calls while their children “run feral”. One single mum called time on her employer after being on yet another conference call when she heard a gushing sound next door. Her three children – aged 10, 7 and 3 – had run a bath and left the water running. The entire kitchen was flooded.

Another told me how her four-year-old had left a note to his dad: “This is a storee about a daddy called Androoo, he werced all the time.”

Parents have spoken of their fears around their children being constantly online. One teacher was in tears to me about the guilt she felt when she was upstairs “looking after other people’s children”, while her own were downstairs alone, playing video games.

To be physically present for our children but not emotionally available – shooing them away while on work calls, sending them downstairs to play while we work upstairs – sends them a very definite message: you’re in the way.

They feel a deep sense of rejection from what is, to them, a very visible representation that work comes before them.

“I can’t go on,” one mum told me. “It’s horrific,” said another, for whom the fear of losing her job means she cannot put her children first. Others tell me how inadequate they feel. Some say they are drinking more and shouting too much.

Fathers say the pressure of an uncertain future and trying to home-school young children has pushed them to the brink. One dad told me he had never smacked his children but said he had come close during lockdown.

A mother admitted that her 10-year-old daughter woke her up to say goodbye to her as she left for school. Frazzled, exhausted and fearful after the loss of her husband’s job, and with her own in the balance, she had fallen asleep at the kitchen table over breakfast.

Even teachers are struggling. Ed Vainker, executive principal at Reach Academy, Feltham, in west London, shared with me the difficulty he has had. “I don’t want to have to be headteacher to my child. Home schooling can challenge the parent-child relationship.”

We can repair this damage – but only if we collectively acknowledge that the combination of home schooling and working from home is, quite frankly, not working.

“We need to think about how to support parents and teachers, with their own feelings of vulnerability, so they feel equipped to manage what often feels so very unmanageable,” Dame Benita Refson, founder and president of children’s mental health charity Place2Be, says.

“As parents and teachers, our own behaviour speaks volumes to children, often leaving a lasting impression on the way the child views their world.”

Dame Benny says many children are fearful of returning to school. The lack of routine means returning to class is going to be difficult for them. Children from black and Asian communities may be particularly anxious, given the news reports of disproportionate impacts of coronavirus on their communities.

Kate’s tips to deal with stress at home

What helps me is to ensure I have had time to connect with my children each day, to create “magic moments” as I call them. Yesterday, it was a game of skipping where my tripping up was the highlight. The day before we baked. The day before that we made playdough and just sat and created “food”.

My children are young, but for all our children having our physical presence – watching a movie, or during a meal – is often what they crave the most, even though they might not always articulate it.

These are the moments our children will remember of this period – the quality time, without phones, without being hurried, just “being” and laughing.

When we carve out that time for our children, to be with them exclusively, it’s the equivalent of a big, long hug. It makes them feel safe. And I cannot stress enough how much it helps us as parents too.

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