Paul Gilligan: Protecting children’s welfare needs to be a pandemic priority 

At a psychological and social level, when you sum up the losses children of all ages have experienced in the last year, no child has gone unaffected
Paul Gilligan: Protecting children’s welfare needs to be a pandemic priority 

There is a real risk that these restrictions will have and are having an impact on their psychological and emotional development. File picture: Pexels

Despite the many advances we have made over the last 20 years in Irish society to protect and enhance children’s rights, the events of the last year have reminded us of how brittle these advances are.

Resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, our adherence to the obligations and commitments we have signed up to under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been impacted upon in ways we still have not fully realised. At a societal level, child poverty, and particularly food poverty, is escalating and the numbers of children and adolescents waiting for specialist mental health treatment are growing.

At a psychological and social level, when you sum up the losses children of all ages have experienced in the last year, no child has gone unaffected. 

This includes the three-year-old who is now being taught to stay away from other children, to continually wash their hands, to not hug their grandparents and the 10-year-old who cannot play openly in the schoolyard, attend their drama or dance class, or go on a play date. 

Older children too must be considered, such as the 15-year-old who cannot meet up with their friends or go to a concert, or the 18-year-old who is starting college from home, cannot participate in competitive sport, and can’t meet up with their boyfriend or girlfriend other than for a walk, assuming they live within 5kms of each other.

In any other circumstances, a child experiencing these types of losses would be identified as needing substantial support.

We should not underestimate the resilience and strength of our young people, most of whom are struggling through and doing their best to comply with restrictions, in the knowledge they are protecting others more vulnerable than themselves. However, there is a real risk that these restrictions will have and are having an impact on their psychological and emotional development.

Crises bring out the best and worst in people. Those with deeply engrained anti-childrens’ rights opinions will use this opportunity to reinforce the view that children should be seen and not heard, that they are irresponsible and have no care for others more vulnerable or that they are “vectors” that must be controlled and managed at all costs.

Many of us feel disquiet that we are being asked to prevent or discourage our children from doing things we know enhance their emotional and psychological development, but rationalise it as being for the greater good. Prioritising the opening of schools, colleges and crèches has been vital.

For those young people who have or will develop mental health difficulties, the very least the State can do for them and their parents is ensure the appropriate supports and services are made available. 

Providing adequate State support for families facing poverty is also now vital.

Nobody is suggesting that we should not have restrictions for children and young people or that they should not adhere to them. 

Young people know they must play their part and are willing to do so. 

However, it is crucial that we do not see this as the “new normal”, and start implementing a plan that will restore children’s and young people's lives to a psychologically healthy “normal”, that we invest in re-teaching our young people about the importance of socialising, intimacy and living with risk.

Parents and teachers can do this by:

  • Encouraging young people to continue to socialise face-to-face with their peers while adhering to the restrictions. Avoid defaulting to the use of internet-based communication all the time; for example, meet a friend for a socially distanced walk in level 5; 
  • Ensuring we remind them to continue to demonstrate physical affection to the people they can, when they can, remembering there will be a time when they can return to doing this with their friends and extended family; 
  • Encouraging them to stay connected with their hobbies while adhering to the guidelines, for example, meeting a friend and kicking a ball around the park, or dancing in the street;
  • Permitting them to discuss how sad, angry, or upset they are with the restrictions and the losses they have experienced without making them feel guilty or ashamed that they are letting others down or are being weak; 
  • Putting the information and risks into perspective for them and teaching them how to manage this risk and the associated worry.

All of this requires us adults to confront our own insecurities, and to remind ourselves that things will change and that this is not the new normal. 

It requires us to make sense of the vast amount of information being presented to us and put it into perspective, to tackle our own anxieties, to continue to show physical emotion and to socialise face-to face when we can. The challenge is to manage the day-to-day risks, worries and changes that Covid-19 brings, while trying to raise emotionally healthy children and keeping ourselves healthy.

We are all in this together and children know this; however, the greatest long-term impact may be on them. 

Recognising this and providing them with the space and support to resolve these impacts is essential. Helping them to tap into their resilience and to connect again with the core psychological aspects of humanity will help ensure this generation will thrive.

Acknowledging and adhering to children’s rights cannot just occur in the good times.

The publication of the report into the Mother and Baby Homes is a timely reminder of how we, in Ireland, have failed our most vulnerable citizens in the past. These failures were perpetrated by a system that was put in place to supposedly help and support people through poverty, and discrimination.

If we have learnt anything, it is that no matter what challenges we are faced with, society’s health and future is always determined by the health, happiness and productivity of its children. Protecting their welfare now needs to be one of our key priorities.

Paul Gilligan is a clinical psychologist and CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services. He is the author of Raising Emotionally Healthy Children

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