It’s Mental Health Awareness Month (Year/ Decade/Century!) and we’re in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic crisis—no one alive today has experienced a global shutdown to this degree. We’ve had to navigate on the fly with no reference, guidebook, or protocol to call upon.
Many of us, especially without the noise and distraction of everyday life, are facing intensified, often destabilizing feelings. And that includes kids—whether they’re able to say so or not.
My friend often recalls a memory of being little and his mom picking him up from school. He was unbearably agitated. The seatbelt felt suffocating, his skin was crawling, he couldn’t stand the polite questions his mom was asking about his day. He was so uncomfortable, he ached to escape his body. He screamed, he terrorized, he pushed everyone on the outside away.
To this day, he has to work consciously not to reenact his trauma. And he knows that healing from the traumas that caused him regularly to disregulate involve understanding what that little boy was reacting to, what he needed, and what might have helped—questions he had never asked himself until now, nearing age 40. He’s just now beginning to acknowledge what happened to him, his own story of survival, and what patterns ensued.
In the midst of a meltdown, children are often ordered by adults to “Stop it!” or told, “Use your words!” without any former guidance on how to do so. Or if a child clams up, they are often pushed to name their feelings immediately—an ability nearly impossible without the space, time, and tools to identify and articulate what’s happening inside them.
I would know. At age 4, I began painful electro muscle stimulation therapy for Scoliosis for two years followed by an aggressive program in which I wore a hard plastic backbrace from collarbone to hips for 20+ hours a day for the next 13 years. I remember having adrenaline-soaked panic attacks, sitting on the toilet shivering before my feet even touched the floor. My parents were loving and supportive, attentive, and inquisitive of my feelings. But I didn’t want to speak. I was over-stimulated from the physical intrusion of X-rays, doctors touching me, nakedness, humiliation; and emotionally burdened by what lay ahead of me every day.
Nineteen years later, I identified that what I needed to hear was, “It’s okay if you don’t want to talk, it’s okay if you want to be left alone, untouched, in your own space.” Because it was there, in the quiet, that I found relief. On my own, I delved into my inner world, dissolved pain, and worked through my overwhelm on paper, through art. These moments informed the career path I would take, and instilled a lifelong practice of mindfulness.
I became an artist. One branch of my work is children’s books. The fifth title that I wrote and illustrated has just won a Nautilus Book Award, Books for a Better World. It’s called Bad Day and it’s about a little boy named Hennie who’s having overwhelming feelings he doesn’t understand. Sulking and fuming, he just wants to hide (with the help of a big paper bag). Pausing to take a deep breath and some quiet reflection, Hennie begins to make sense of his feelings and discovers the power of turning inward—in his own way, on his own time. The youngest of readers watch a little boy feel bad (real bad, it lasts awhile!) and then model how to validate his feelings and find resilience in the experience. Hennie (whose name means “Ruler of the home”) helps normalize crucial skillsets like emotion identification and self-regulation.
Bad Day is for ages 0-101.
We live in an age of technological overstimulation, anger, disconnection, and reactivity. The Surgeon General has long reported that kids are feeling increasingly isolated despite constant “connectedness.” The young generation is often upset if they don’t experience instant gratification, made even more difficult by being at home on lockdowns due to Covid-19.
At this moment in history (especially as we face returning to the busyness of daily life), self-awareness and the ability to process emotions are as vital as any schooling or rite of passage—and not only do these skills benefit the practitioner, they end up benefitting the external world. We can begin to productively tackle all worldly problems—from relationships to health, the environment, politics, etc—by starting with self-awareness and personal agency.
Any challenge we face—individual, familial, national, global—can serve as an initiation to embody our highest selves. As a former teacher, I know that children can process much more than Western culture tends to give them credit for, and that’s a foundational concept in all my books. It has long been my motto that when we give kids the information they need to make educated choices, they choose wisely.
Now is a very unique and special moment to involve your children in awareness and conversation about mental health. Some will take to guidance and being asked questions, some will want space and quiet to process feelings on their own accord. In any case, we can begin to teach our children that where we find overwhelming feelings, we can also find magic—our stories, our core strengths, and our resilience.
This kind of education lasts a lifetime.