Updated: May 31
How can we mitigate the risks of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of young people?
Image courtesy of Youth Opportunities (SA) Incorporated
"The truth is that years down the track people, especially children and young people, will recall how they felt about Corona virus rather than the situation itself"
The truth is that years down the track people, especially children and young people, will recall how they felt about Corona virus rather than the situation itself. It turns out that our affective memory is more enduring that our episodic memory which means that we are more likely to recall the emotions attached to an event than the specific details. We know that globally we are seeing unprecedented levels of anxiety in children and young people today. We also know that uncertainty, a perceived lack of control and social disconnection are three identified factors that can exacerbate the problem.
I distinctly recall how I felt when I first saw those empty supermarket shelves last week. There was an almost primal urge to start grabbing anything that was left and I felt a rising sense of panic. I thought if that’s what it is like for me, what must it be like for our children and young people? As adults it’s really important that we role model calm and control during this time. Our children and young people will be taking their cues from us as they learn how to respond to stress and uncertainty. There are a number of strategies that we can employ to support ourselves and the young people we care for to tackle the challenges of uncertainty, perceived loss of control and social disconnection.
Firstly become a critical consumer of information and encourage children and young people to do the same. Limit your exposure to media stories, especially the ‘car crash’ social media
hype that is designed to unsettle us. Instead deliberately seek out sources that can be relied upon. Ask yourself – is it verifiable and is it helpful? When dealing with the anxiety of others it can be helpful to point out that pandemics and epidemics have happened many times in our history and they follow a familiar pattern. There is comfort in knowing that this too shall pass.
Do the same for your self-talk (things you say to yourself out loud or in your head) when you are tempted to only see the worst. Evolution has hard-wired our brains to focus on the negative and, as a survival mechanism to alert us to danger, it has served us well in the past. However in our current world this tendency can produce cognitive distortions, such as catastrophising, that are no longer adaptive. Again, ask yourself - Is it verifiable? Is it helpful? Challenge it for evidence and reframe for adaptive thinking.
Creating a routine can be useful in making a more predictable environment for you and your family. Try to mimic a normal day as much as possible with set times for meals, study, leisure and work. Avoid the temptation to behave like you are on holiday and make sure that you maintain, or create, healthy sleep habits.
Instilling a Sense of Control
Give options for children and young people to make decisions wherever possible to highlight where they can have some control. This may be as simple as choosing meal options or
deciding the order of learning activities. Seize opportunities and set some goals. Planning to achieve goals is important because it gives us a sense of purpose and having purpose can inoculate us against depression. Be clear about the things you want to achieve during this time. It’s even a good idea to draw up a one-month and a three-month plan so you can break your goals down to achievable bite-sized chunks.
It’s also a great chance to choose growth. Ever thought about doing something different with your career to make the most of new opportunities that can arise from this type of disruption? Maybe learn that language you’ve always wanted to?
Maintaining & Enhancing Social Connection
So when we talk about social distancing, it’s really physical distancing that we mean. Social connection is so fundamental to we humans that the quality of our relationships has the
power to predict how long we will live! Embrace opportunities afforded to us by technology and keep in contact with friends and loved ones. This is especially important for children and young people whose families are facing additional challenges. It may be that school, or a grandparent’s house were their safe places to be and so being able to keep the connection is vital for their wellbeing. At home you can also find novel ways to bond with family members with games, art projects and other activities.
We’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge the challenge that can come from confinement for long periods. We normally get a break from our families when we go to school or to work. At Youth Opportunities we teach young people to focus on the positives and to send “stars” – stars are symbolic of any form of positive communication. The norm of reciprocity means that the more stars we send the more we will get back. Try to create a star filled environment in your home. Simple things like smiles, acts of kindness, compliments, appreciation and gratitude will make a huge difference to how you and your family will fare emotionally.
"The more stars we send the more we will get back"
You can create good memories during these times. Imagine that in the future your children will remember COVID-19 with great fondness - as the time that the family built a fort out of cardboard boxes – or when you all took turns cooking and voted toasted banana sandwiches the winner!
"Imagine that in the future your children will remember COVID-19 with great fondness"
Marshman Foundation; The Research & Development Arm of Youth Opportunities
Nicky Brand is a freelance consultant and currently manages the Marshman Foundation, a research and development arm of Youth Opportunities, an Australian based charity. Nicky is a behavioural scientist with many years’ experience of applied psychology both in Australia and the UK. She has expertise in developing and managing evidence-based programs that support young people at risk.