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For the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about youth mental health. As any teacher or parent may tell you, school-aged kids are struggling. The affect COVID-19 has had on kids’ mental health can’t be understated. The data is showing more and more that COVID-19, and the measures put in place to stop its spread, have put kids at greater risk of depression and anxiety.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the public health measures that were implemented were necessary and important. Safety is key to mental health, and if we don’t take measures to keep kids safe from disease, we aren’t helping their mental health.
Yes, part of the reason that kids are struggling is because some of the public health measure isolated them from friends and family, and from the routines that they were used to. But, I think there is another reason for kids’ poor mental health that we are overlooking: the adults behaved poorly.
If we look back of the past few years, you can see how kids were used by some adults as an excuse for poor behavior. Many of those who showed up to yell at school board members, who broadcast conspiracy theories, or showed incredible indifference to the vulnerable, almost always claimed they were doing it to “protect the kids.” But is that really true?
When I work with divorcing couples who are using “the kids” as an excuse to fight, belittle, or demean each other, it’s never really about the kids. These divorcing adults are angry, feel betrayed, or have been deeply hurt and use “the kids” as an excuse to share these emotions poorly. But in the long run, these divorcing parents end up hurting their kids more not less.
In part, I think the same thing is happening throughout the pandemic. Adults have used “the kids” as an excuse to let out their worst emotional impulses. But in doing so, they are inflicting more pain on the very people that they claim to want to protect.
Divorcing couples who really want to protect their kids do what adults are supposed to do — put their strongest impulses aside to focus on how to protect the vulnerable. They might not always agree, and they may not even like the other person, but they really want what is best for their kids, so they figure out a way to do it.
In some cases, there were schools and communities that really did this — they tried their best to put aside differences to do the hard work of figuring out how to protect kids. And I think in the coming months and years, we’ll see that even the kids in these communities struggled, but the adults were able to help them avoid the worst outcomes.
But unfortunately, others are showing a scary trend: they are now creating new topics to continue bad faith arguments. Whether it’s barring trans kids from sports or banning books, some adults are once again behavior poorly under the guise of protecting the kids.
If we, as adults, want to get serious about kids’ mental health, we need to have these hard conversations without resulting to insults, conspiracies, or bad faith arguments. We need to leave our worse impulses aside and focus on doing the hard, nuanced work of protecting youth mental health.
Jacob Priest is a licensed marriage and family therapist and University of Iowa professor. He co-hosts the Attached Podcast. Comments: email@example.com