“March 20, 2020, has been a turning point in my life. All that I valued, the human touch, tangible connections, programmes, engagements, get-togethers, festivals and assemblies seem to have lost all meaning. In fact, I think I have grown up very fast as compared to any other generation of my age. Today, more than ever, I feel triggered, flooded and overwhelmed by this situation. The question that wells up in my mind is what happened to yesterday? What will happen today? How will I step into tomorrow? My dreams have been replaced by stress, anxiety and uncertainty.”
This cry of help came from an adolescent in school, who was unable to cope. The coronavirus apocalypse has been devastating for adults, but adolescents have been impacted by it in a much greater manner.
Between the ages of 13 to 17, teens and tweens have increased developmental motivation that makes it hard to isolate them. The hormonal changes during puberty combined with adolescent dynamics make them highly attuned to social status and peer groups.
Caught in a vacuum, at a time when they were ready to launch themselves, many teens are wading through complicated emotions. They have had to adjust to online learning, isolated from their friends, and eliminate meaningful events from their calendars. They mourn the loss of school groups, sports and informal get-togethers. The ritual of going to class and hanging out with people who they have grown up with, even if they have not been close friends, seems over.
Till now, the majority of children were in a vacation mode, but the reality of not going back to school has suddenly dawned upon them because the pandemic shows no signs of abatement. Levels of frustration, nervousness and disconnection have become much greater. A nostalgia of events pre-March has become intense.
A lot of adolescents hope to get back so they can have a little time to officially close the book on their lives in school. Due to this pandemic, children are afraid of venturing outside their homes. Suddenly, their safety and security has been threatened and challenged from multiple angles.
The more common stressors that teens are facing are loved ones becoming ill, non-stop pandemic news, family economics with their parents losing jobs, loss of traditional milestones in their school activities that are significant rites of passage, fear of catching a flight, visiting a grocery store or even going to a dentist. All these have impacted their mental health.
Adolescence is a state of major transition. It’s when they start finding their identity, their sense of self from their peer group. If at this crucial period, they are caught up in processing a range of very intense emotions from fear and anger to sadness and grief, the result can lead to a chronic anxiety disorder.
Different teens are having different reactions. For introverted adolescents, the current situation is giving them a sense of calm or relief. The extroverts, whose energy is recharged by communication, are devastated by the quarantine.
It is very important to be on the lookout for warning signs of depression, which range from emotional changes, feelings of despair and emptiness, mental changes, difficulty in focusing and thinking, physical changes including eating habits, weight and sleeping patterns. It is imperative that we take very seriously, actions of self-harm or even words that may lead to it.
Disorders have emerged affecting mood swings, behaviour and sleeping patterns due to the excessive use of technology. This 24-hour rhythm has now become the new norm, and has broken up the space between waking and sleep.
Parents are trying to balance their own work and the remote-learning schedules of their children, trying to find ways to help them cope. Parents have to acknowledge the anxieties of their children and have an open and honest discussion about the struggles they are facing, but with a level of reassurance.
Adolescents watch adults for psychological cues. If parents are calm, the children, in turn, will be more confident of their wellbeing. What may seem trivial to an adult may be very important to a teen or a tween. Dismissing or minimising their feelings is not the best approach: Parents must show compassion and validate their concerns because they will not get the moments they are missing back. The citation ceremonies, farewells, annual days, school carnivals, all of these make up the sights, sounds, feelings and fragrances of the growing-up years. It is their participation and reaction to these that will make them the adults of tomorrow.
Schools and the homes have changed roles. The online teaching model has to be embedded with an emotional compass more than anything else as mental health issues have already pinnacled and the domino effect is going to be felt across time. Social-emotional learning will help children to cope and prevent arousal symptoms and strong negative emotions. Capsules of meditation, yoga, motivational conversations will help to deconstruct the conflict that children are facing. Identifying their areas of stress, detachment and confusion should become an integral part of the teaching-learning experience.
In the immediate now, and forever, we must stop worrying about the learning gaps, but think about how our children will cope with anxiety, uncertainty and change. Can our children breathe, meditate, relax, experience tenderness, trust, and do they know if they have a self to find? If what is being taught in school and at home is not connected with the child’s happiness, survival and sanity, then, who is caring for our children?
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 9 under the title “Who is caring for children?”. The writer is principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi.
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