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Talking can be a key to recovery

In 2014, Oxford University Press, which publishes, among other titles, the Oxford English Dictionary, announced for the very first time its children’s word of the year.

The word most children chose was ‘minions’, a reference to the quirky characters from the popular animated Despicable Me film series. Twelve months later, in 2015, ‘hashtag’ took its place.

This isn’t all that long ago, eight years for ‘minions’ and just seven for ‘hashtag’, but it’s clear that these are words reflective of a different, more innocent and easier time.

This month, when OUP revealed its children’s word for 2021, the choice told a stark tale. 

The word that came out on top this time was ‘anxiety’.

In truth, since ‘minions’ and ‘hashtag’, this is an exercise that has taken a somewhat darker turn: in 2016, children chose ‘refugee’, then, in order, ‘Trump’, ‘plastic’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘coronavirus’.

The world has, of course, been a difficult place for us all, not least since 2020, when Covid-19 first took a grip on our lives that has yet to be relinquished.

Lockdowns and lost liberties, human contact denied, death and illness, masks and more, it’s no surprise that our children are so on edge. Entering adolescence and all that it entails is difficult enough as it is, without a global pandemic to add to the equation. It’s something that, as restrictions begin to ease once more and the dust starts to clear, we must all continue to consider, acknowledge and understand.

Just because limitations are soon to lift doesn’t mean that for those most scarred, young people and children especially, there is going to be an immediate recovery.

Reading an article online a little earlier, one phrase that struck quite a chord was ‘cognitive whiplash’ – this something that we should continue to expect to pose problems. 

Young people and children have seen their ‘safe world turned upside down’, noted one commentator. 

Righting it again could prove to be as great a challenge as overcoming Covid itself.

That much is reflected in the OUP report, which involved 8,000 children aged between seven and 14 and used wellbeing as its research focus. That more than a fifth – 21% – plumped for ‘anxiety’ suggests issues are due to endure for some time still to come. To those on the frontline, this is an inevitable consequence.

‘It is concerning that this was the number one word, but it isn’t surprising considering all the restrictions and changes children had to endure,’ Joe Jenkins, Executive Director of the Children’s Society, told The Telegraph last week. ‘Having conversations and using the right language is important when supporting children if they’re feeling anxious, isolated or going through tough challenges, and it’s also crucial children are able to express how they’re feeling.’

This last point is crucial, of course, for communication is all important and, as noted in our blog last summer, when it comes to mental health matters, it’s good to talk.

Problems shared are problems halved, so the old saying goes, and talking through troubles (or just lending a listening ear) is something that as parents – indeed, something that as people – we should all strive to do more often and more effectively.

Young people in particular can benefit a great deal from having an outlet to express and explain issues. Let’s not forget that long before Covid-19, when ‘minions’ and ‘hashtag’ were the day’s most de rigueur words, we were still encountering plenty of children feeling nervous, uncomfortable, anxious and scared about their lives and the world they inhabit.

That the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing issues is beyond all question. Yet there is hope, and light at the end of the tunnel, not least from OUP, who in addition to quizzing children in great number, have also surveyed teachers representing the 85 schools from which the pupils were drawn.

Those teachers, tellingly, when asked to select their word of the year for 2021, opted for ‘resilience’.

It’s a choice that gives us great hope that, with the appropriate support and guidance in the weeks and months ahead, young people and children will bounce back and that these dark days can be overcome.