Liz Straker is a TeenMatters UKCP registered gestalt psychotherapist for adults and teenagers. She also works in the field of executive coaching and leadership development. This article has been put together based on the answers to a short questionnaire Teenmatters sent out to approximately 50 teenagers about the effects of the coronavirus on their lives.
Coronavirus – The Context
The Coronavirus has had a dramatic impact on us all, but one group that has particularly suffered has been young people. They have had the rug pulled out from under them with the loss of some of the big milestones that punctuate this stage of their lives: cancelled GCSE exams and A levels/ BTECs, colleges and universities running the summer term on line or cancelling it altogether and finals that are happening in unpredicted and inconceivable ways, benefitting some and penalising others. Linked to this, young people are also being cheated of the endings and celebrations they so deserve that signify the completion of a particular stage of school, college or university: the parties, balls, proms, festivals, leisure and travel plans that often succeed the intensity and challenge of this time.
Gen Z is no different than most living in this period- we see no nearing end. Thus, many of our ideas lie in wait at the conceptual stage. We want to do everything- with many exclamation points- but we’re holding out for the prom or graduation that may never come. We are mourning the memories we counted on.”
On one level there may be a sense from others or even the young people themselves that they have ‘got away with it’ easily, not having to take the exams, but much more prevalent is the sense that they have been deprived of the recognised outlet for the culmination of their hard work, commitment and scholarship and have been denied the opportunity to go through a difficult but important process.
University students have also been impacted financially. They have had to abandon their shared houses and halls of residence but have generally still had to pay till the end of the academic year. Parents and students throughout the country are working out how and when to retrieve possessions and clear out rotting food left abandoned in cupboards and fridges. In many universities, students are missing out on some or all of the lectures, exams and course work that would have happened, they are missing shared times with friends and engaging in new activities and the university experience they had dreamt of and paid for.
Even young people not directly affected by the lack of exams have had their lives turned upside down. They have been catapulted into a world of online learning for which they are ill prepared. Teachers are often as ill equipped as the young people to take on this challenge as they are often not trained or experienced in teaching in this way. Some kids are ending up feeling overwhelmed by too much work or bored and under-stimulated by too little. One year 7 commented that “we are being taught like 6th formers even though we are only year 7.” Others however are enjoying the autonomy and comradeship of online learning with friends. Much depends on the age of the child, the resources they have and the approach taken by a particular teacher or school.
Celebrations for important age milestones are also being abandoned or celebrated in a very different style, bringing an element of disappointment but sometimes also creative and surprising ways of marking the event. 16th, 18th and 21st birthdays are being celebrated with immediate family, online or possibly even alone, with less of the excitement and build up that would normally accompany such events. Weddings that have been planned for months, if not years, are being cast aside with no sense of a rescheduled date. Young parents are having to shoulder alone the excitement and responsibilities of new babies, with less of the normal and vital support network around them.
Another key aspect of this time is a lack of the normal routine. The normal rhythms of the school week, the university schedule or a job have been completely altered and the usual family and leisure activities have taken away structure from evenings and weekends. Some young people are going to bed later, finding themselves unable to sleep and sleeping well into the next day. Although some adolescents may be revelling in the freedom from the routine, for many it can be very anxiety provoking. There is a sense in some teens of ‘what is the point’ of waking up if there is nothing really to do. There is a long expanse of time stretching out before them with no sense that life will return to anything resembling normal till the Autumn at the earliest. Summer travel and holiday plans also look threatened, adding to the sense of uncertainty and lack of anchoring points in the days, weeks and months ahead. Much of the time this is leading to boredom, frustration, overthinking, anxiety and even depression but at other times it is opening up space for tapping into remarkable reserves of creativity, resilience and an ability to be in the moment.
Even more fundamental, is that this is the stage of life for young people to explore the world and their identity and gain autonomy from their parents. It involves socialising with peers and limiting the amount of time spent with their family. Coronavirus has turned this natural process on its head, requiring most young people to spend more time with their family than ever before. Older teenagers who should be at university or living with their friends have come back into the family home leading to some frustrations on both sides. Budding relationships have been stopped in their tracks, with Facetime an invaluable but at times inadequate and soulless recompense for physical connection. There is also a big disparity between the families that have the space and resources to accommodate having their young people back relatively easily and families who are living on top of each other and who lack outside space and can barely tolerate this confinement. Tensions that normally get dissipated by the comings and goings and general ‘busyness’ of everyday life are getting accentuated and cracks that may exist in relationships are being laid bare in microscopic detail. Of course, there is the other side, where families are coming closer together and are more appreciative of the mutual support that they are experiencing.
“If there’s anything this self-isolation has taught me so far, it’s this: It’s never too late to bond with family and awaken new interests.”
There is also fear and anxiety in the air: fear about personal finances, the economy, job security, health, year abroad, internships, career prospects, death and the future. This fear can lead to everyone becoming more concerned with protecting themselves and demonstrating early survival behaviours such as ‘fight, flight, flee, leading to aggressive behaviours or withdrawal, rather than taking time to understand someone else’s perspective, with patience, love and listening. Again, conversely feelings of fear and uncertainty may also be leading to closeness and bonding and renewed appreciation of family and friendship bonds.
So, it is definitely not all doom and gloom and there are some upsides to all of this, and often the two can, confusingly, be happening in parallel. There is the opportunity for families to spend quality time together and siblings to reconnect with each other. Life has become much more simple with a focus on the basics – in many cases food, exercise and fresh air. To some extent materialism has faded into the background (although online shopping is providing a useful diversion!) and connections and what is important have become more forefront. One young person said, “It has definitely made me realise how much we can do without”.
A light has been shone on the jobs and professions that really make a difference to people’s lives and well- being – from nurses and doctors, to cleaners and shop workers, to delivery drivers and refuse collectors. It is forcing many of us, including young people, to really examine our values and what is important to us. The impact of the world stopping and the reduction in pollution and the effect on climate change has become so clear and obvious it is impossible to ignore. This hiatus is giving us all time to reflect – individually, within our families and as a society about what is important and what we want to prioritise moving forward. Things that have previously felt impossible may, in this new world, now appear possible or even necessary.
Psychological & physical symptoms of the world of coronavirus
This time will of course affect all of us in different ways, but with young people it can lead to a feeling of isolation, to existential angst, to increased anxiety and depression and to extreme OCD. It can manifest itself in withdrawal from the family, in anger and frustration, in lashing out to those a young person care about. It can lead to a lack of self-motivation and to wanting to spend as much time in bed as possible. For a number of young people, it can lead to increased alcohol and drug use and a sense of wanting to block things out. In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts or a sense of breaking down. But again, there can be upsides for some e.g. a reduction in anxiety from having to be continually connecting and being with others, a sense of life being calmer, a relaxing of the continual pressure they are normally under.
What young people can do to help themselves & each other
The list below may look daunting, but it is about taking one or two ideas that might appeal to you and trying to accommodate them into your life. The most important aspect of all of this is to show compassion to yourself and others and focus on what you are achieving in this time, however small, rather than focusing on what you are not achieving.
- Focus on small achievements such as getting up at a sensible time, having a shower and having breakfast. One young person said – “Find little things to do that’ll feel achievable; start your day off the same way with a few nice things”
- Show yourself and others compassion – an acceptance that this is hard on so many levels. As one young person said – “However, be kind to yourself and indulge in rest, relaxation and some mental respite, as no modern-day human is mentally designed to cope with the drastic changes this period is bringing”.
- Work out how to create a routine and schedule that will work for you, in the absence of one imposed on you from outside (i.e. university, a job etc)
- Prioritise some sort of exercise daily or every few days and use the many classes and routines available online. It will help to give structure to your day and the endorphins you get will add greatly to a sense of well being
- Consider doing the exercise with a friend online or sibling – it can make a big difference to your motivation
- Yoga is great for the mind and the body
- Try and have a roughly similar time to go to bed and get up, as this has been proven to be best for our well -being
- Try and get outside for at least 30 minutes – an hour a day – connecting with nature is good for our well-being as well as helping us to sleep in the evening
- If you feel able, connect with friends at least every day or every other day. Using Zoom or Facetime so you can see each other adds to a sense of connection
- Learn some new skills such as improving your cooking, making bread, learning how to sew or knit or learning a new language. It will give you a sense that you are doing something beneficial with your time and it is also a great opportunity to learn skills from your parents, an opportunity that you might not otherwise have
- Try and eat healthily as much as you can whilst recognising some comfort eating is inevitable
- If possible, make sure you are giving yourself some creative outlets
- Play games and do puzzles with friends and family
- Read books and listen to interesting pod casts or TED Talks
- Try and look at some of the benefits this time does offer us, rather than what it is taking away
- Consider starting a gratitude journal writing down three things you are grateful for every day, however small. The research tells us this can make a big impact on our wellbeing. As one young person said “Like everyone, I hope this virus teaches people to appreciate the world and all it offers much more than before. I’ve learnt to not take freedom in life and lifestyle for granted ever again, and to just be a more compassionate and appreciative person of community, the earth and everything in it, as this has shown the fragility of life”.
- Try and stay in the present moment – avoiding excessive ruminating on the past or ‘what if’s’ for the future. This can become very destabilising and one’s mood can easily spiral out of control
- Ways of staying in the present include focusing on your senses, focusing on your breathing, rubbing your hands together until they are really warm, focusing on things in nature such as a flower or a bird or the sky
- Remind yourself that everyone is in a similar position
- Practise mindfulness, using one of the many apps out there to support you such as Calm or Headspace (more apps detailed below.)
- Monitor and minimise your time on social media – being mindful of what contributes to enhancing your mood and what contributes to pulling you down
- Restrict your exposure to the news to a very limited amount – maybe 15 minutes a day maximum
- Keep a journal of this time that can help you reflect and will become a record of this time in your life
- Look for a support structure beyond your family to help you through this time, whether it is friends, an online support group or an adult outside your immediate family
- Focus on the parts of you that you know are resilient and have supported you through difficult times in the past
- Keep reminding yourself this is temporary – “this too will pass”
How you can support young people to help themselves
- Listen to their worries, concerns and frustrations and don’t dismiss them
- Encourage them to express their emotions, however difficult it may be for you to hear
- Focus on what they are managing to do, however small, not what they are not doing (which may be considerable)!
- Try and put yourself in their shoes and recognise the significance of their losses
- Help them to put together a schedule that will support them
- Offer opportunities for engagement and interaction regularly, whilst knowing that they will often be rejected
- Try not to take things personally – they need someone to take their frustration out on
- Ask them about the support they need
- Try and centre and calm yourself as your kids will pick up on your own stress and anxiety
- Don’t expect too much of them and don’t underestimate the emotional toll of this time
- Give them more slack than you might do normally
- Remember through all this that the relationship between you is the most important thing, rather than schoolwork or cleaning their rooms!
Please contact us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to arrange an online therapy session to help with any of the issues associated with the coronavirus or adolescent problems more generally. Alternatively, please find links to a range of online support below.
Resources and Support
OTR Support Directory: otrtwickenham.com/information-support-directory/
Hounslow Youth Counselling Service (HYCS):
- Self Help Hub – on Sleep, Breathing, Food & Mood, Exam Stress, Gender & Sexuality
- Emotional Crisis Leaflet
- Self Help Apps
- Self-Care Kit
- Parents and carers
- Coronavirus mental health advice for young people
- Coronavirus mental health advice for parents and carers
NHS Every Mind Matters: