Adapting to a new reality
Dr Colman Noctor is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist with St Patrick's Mental Health Services. Here, he explores we can support schoolchildren through the COVID-19 lockdown.
There is perhaps a belief out there that most children and young people (except for Leaving Certificate students) are having a ball at the moment since they are off school. It may appear to some, given that their summer holidays started on St Patrick’s weekend, that they are so fortunate or so jammy.
However, I am not sure that this is the reality for many. The reality for all of us who are ‘working from home’ is that we are in fact, ‘parenting from work’. It is not the same as ‘being off’, and therefore lockdown must not be understood as a ‘holiday’.
Many young people are not ‘off school’: they are just ‘not in school’ - a subtle but important difference. Many are expected to keep up with curriculum work which is being sent to them at home via email, and, for many, they are describing a heavier workload than would be expected while they are attending school. Some have suggested that teachers seem to need to justify their work ethic by sending bucketloads of work home to prove that they are working hard, but that this also has ramifications for the students. Others with a tendency for anxiety may describe the exposure to the comparative efforts of their peers as also a source of stress and anxiety.
However, as in most situations, those with a tendency for anxiety will experience this time stressfully, where as those with a tendency for complacency may be able to take advantage of the looser levels of supervision and vigilance.
So how is lockdown affecting children and young people?
For the younger group, the academic loss of time is less of a concern than the social cost. I worry that younger children may be negatively affected by the lack of social contact. At this age, children learn through play. They are learning important social skills and are constantly reading social cues and nuances. Due to the need to be isolated, these skills are not given an opportunity to develop, which is less of a worry for those of us that have learned these skills in the past and may just get rusty.
For younger children, this is their formative experience of these crucial communicative skills which they are only beginning to learn. There is also the fear that the normative becomes the normal. By this, I mean the current dimension of social distancing is necessary at the moment, but is not reflective of normal communication and being. I therefore wonder about the longer term effect on our children as we see them almost automatically and without prompting jump two meters away from grown-ups. We must be very careful that this odd behavior does not get understood as the norm.
For middle aged children from seven to 12, this is a very social period of their lives and again the social isolation from peers, structured activities and sport is a massive loss for a cohort that depends heavily on these structures to provide meaning to their world.
I also feel for the milestone years like the First Holy Communion group and the sixth class group, who not only will miss out on their Confirmation, but also the ceremonial aspects of concluding primary school. These tours, parties and ceremonies may seem trivial, but they are important aspects of the change process that occurs in this important transitional stage.
Finally, for the adolescent or older teenage group, the loss of structure and relationships is important. Adolescence is a challenging time and the structure of a school and an extracurricular week can be an important aspect to managing this life stage.
Most of what we as mental health professionals advocate is feeling productive, mixing with peers, building relationships, exercise and structure. This COVID-19 pandemic has removed many of these options and so the time we are currently experiencing is an almost anti-psychological wellbeing environment.
With this in mind, what can we do?
We need to support young people by concentrating on the finite nature of this pandemic and convey a sense of the temporary to the situation. The old adage of ‘this too will pass’ has never had so much relevance.
- Support ongoing contact with friends and relationships and try to minimize uncertainty.
- We need to keep young people in the right frame of vigilance which allows them to be safe without being overwhelmed. We want them to wash their hands and social distance but we don’t want them to be unable to sleep at night. So, best to tailor your approach and pull back on details where children are particularly worried.
- We need to pitch the importance and social responsibility of these measures to get buy-in. This is more effective than implementing interventions through conflict and resistance.
- Spend time with this group and encourage socially safe contact; empower them to feel capable. However, I would urge against breaking the rules too much – ask if this is giving young people what they might want or giving them what they need?
- Convey empathy to their struggle and try not to dismiss it. This is a big deal for them. The more we listen, the less they shout - so let’s promote listening to children and young people, and explain that not agreeing with someone is different to not listening.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses, and the response most effective now is patience. We should do more of the things that help us to be patient and less of the things that cause us to be impatient and stressed.
Joy, trust and hope will get us through this - so let’s help children and young people experience joy during lockdown. Be a trustworthy and safe family unit for them and support them to believe they are being kept in mind.
And, finally, try to instill a sense of hope for young people, that very soon normal service will resume and we will re-board normal life again, hopefully with more patience, a better knowledge of ourselves and closer relationships which are now revalued and reorganised, based on what’s really important.
Continue to…Overcoming changes and empowering ourselves to face the future after lockdown