Worn Patterns of Care: The Mental Health of Children
Curated by the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy
If I were to say the word ‘family’, what would be the first few things to pop into your head? Parents perhaps: blood, lineage, history maybe. Or love, loyalty, children?
Many other associations come with this simple yet massive word. The truth is, we live in a place with a very specific and unyielding view of what a family is.
However much we want to believe that this is changing (and we truly do), that some kind of progress is taking place, a challenge to archaic notions of the biological, patriarchal, heterosexual family unit, the frustrating reality remains.
The traditional family dominates and becomes a major player in who we are and how we live our lives, regardless of whether we stayed within it or walked away.
We’ve all been children in these spaces, and god knows most of us have gold stars and faded scars to show for it.
Children in family settings are central to keeping the machine well oiled. They are the perfect characters on which to demonstrate appropriate affection, re-establish boundaries and beliefs, and keep the hierarchy of power intact.
More often than not, children are the clearest path to fulfilling one’s duty, especially if you have a male child, and they are the one true answer to failing marriages. So are we really surprised, that the way these little humans are seen is as mere extensions of the parents, empty vessels for others to vicariously live their unfulfilled goals and dreams?
In reality, this is where we begin. It is a combination of these factors that leaves us with the conundrum in which we find ourselves, consciously or otherwise. We are surrounded by beings who began their lives as shadows. If this sounds dramatic, exaggerated, or just plain disheartening: I’m not arguing children aren't loved, cherished, or nurtured. I'm saying it doesn't negate all the rest.
The biggest downside of such an upbringing and view of children is that we are left with young people who were never given ‘permission’ to think that they are whole, entire individuals, in and of themselves, and were never allowed their own emotions, desires, needs, which may or may not be in line with their families’.
I have worked with children and teenagers in various settings, including formal ones like schools – the other formative space many children are part of through the first two decades.
Weary of generalising, I want to acknowledge the few schools that are different, and actually question their own pedagogy. But the large majority of educational institutes are a winning tag-team counterpart that teach children to assimilate perfectly, and become ‘appropriate’ and ‘well behaved’ characters.
For those of us who attended school, schooling systems are seen as the primary ‘trainers’, with a responsibility to impart acceptable knowledge and also inculcate the behaviours and discipline expected of well-mannered people in a ‘civilised’ society, regardless of differences in their needs or comfort.
‘Sit straight, be quiet, don’t fidget, don’t ask questions, respect your teachers and elders.’ This prescribed regimen in the process of teaching us many things, is the antithesis of a system that allows room for growth, let alone one that nurtures or encourages it.
The brain we deem important for intelligence and cramming information. This was followed by a realisation of the needs of the body as a supportive element, housing our ability to think and be, making way for sports, competition, and physical fitness.
While we’ve managed to extend our understanding of education in this way, and implement it to an extent, we continue to see children as parts. What other explanation is there for how we segment their learning and upbringing?
Yet here we are in a time that chooses to be ignorant of what it is that ties it all together: our heart-mind, emotional and mental health. So why is it that when learning and physical wellbeing are seen as important for humans of every age, that we are so afraid to face the reality that all of us, children most importantly, need and deserve to learn about their mental health?
The silence, from both caregivers and educators alike, illustrates a lack of acknowledgement of children’s individual personalities, agency, journeys and processes. Also reflecting the lack of acceptance and fear among adults about accepting and dealing with challenges of mental health.
It perpetuates the unhealthy and unfair expectation that everyone is to ‘figure it out’ on their own time, internally and alone. And though more adults are seeking support, the taboo that surrounds mental health continues to make it only a last resort, leaving adults too to believe they must fend for themselves until they reach a critical breaking point.
By refusing to identify the problem and choosing to not provide guidance at an early stage, we continue to encourage this deeply harmful pattern that has been passed down through generations.
The time for reimagining mental health for children and young adults has long arrived, but it can only exist in a society willing to see them as equals, capable of knowing themselves and making informed choices about their own lives.
To be clear, this does not discard the role of teachers or families in any way, but gives us too the room to step back and reflect on our interventions. It encourages us to learn and grow as individuals ourselves, too, in the hope that in these positions of immense influence we relinquish the reins of power and control.
Children have the incredible opportunity to learn kinder, more productive patterns of reflection and self-care, and genuinely live healthier and more fulfilling lives.
The longer we take to recognise this and provide the means for children to make it a reality, the longer we condemn people to live lives in distress, disconnected from ourselves and each other.
We cannot turn a blind eye to the change that is needed, nor our collective responsibility as educators, parents, and all those engaging with young individuals.
Anahita Sarabhai (she/they) is a queer, disabled, intersectional feminist, performing artist, educator, poet and activist. She teaches theatre and literature to 11th and 12th grade students