Masking Matters

BY SUSANNA PINKUS

The lockdowns were obviously a very challenging time for many. But for some of the youngsters I see, and particularly the girls, for the first time, they experienced a different way to live and learn.

A way where they could separate their deep love of learning from the pain of trying to fit in socially, and the often invisible sensory and emotional overwhelm of the school environment.

This was a way that felt more authentic, less stressful, and they could just be themselves. Their true selves.

Since the return to regular schooling, the masks they wore beforehand no longer seem to fits as it did before.

Whether as adults or children, perhaps we all have different versions of ourselves in different places (to some degree). But for many of the youngsters I see in private practice, the masking has and does take on a whole new dimension, ‘master-masking’ if you like. 

In order to fit in and to please, the mask can become so well polished that often teachers and even parents, can’t always see the turmoil beneath. Eventually though, unfortunately often through the presentation of mental health challenges, and commonly at home where the child feels safe and loved enough to be themselves, this disconnect may become apparent through emotional withdrawal, outbursts and meltdowns.

I worry that often the mental health challenges which are then identified are diagnosed but often without looking closely enough at why they may be there in the first place. The child in these situations becomes the focus of the interventions, rather than taking the time to understand the world through their eyes and making the necessary adaptations around them that are required.

So often it seems, the presenting feelings and behaviours may be treated, but the root causes and environmental factors are not fully considered, explored, and addressed.

We need to become far better at understanding what we are seeing and how to assist.

I have to say that I am always blown away by the youngsters I meet. At whatever age and stage, when they feel safe enough, they can absolutely identify what feels authentic to them and where they feel they can be their true selves. Through gentle and compassionate listening, they tell me about the sensory challenges they experience and where stressors in the school lie. Taking careful note of these, I can begin to formulate ways to reduce their anxieties and find happier, less stressful ways to learn.

And even in the trickiest situations, these young people shine when they talk about what makes them happy, and I work at weaving more of this joy into their lives whilst simultaneously reducing environmental pressures to mask. 

The question therefore isn’t how can we fit these children back into the old and existing systems where masking sometimes became the norm. Rather, how can we adjust our ways of educating, to enable all young people to thrive and be their best, happiest, and most authentic selves?

Image Credit: Artwork by Ria Mishaal, using components by herself and HE68 and Damsea and Dima Zel/Shutterstock.com