Suddenly the world changed; overnight adolescents were isolated from their friends, moved to on-line learning, not allowed to leave their homes and told that a dangerous virus was circulating and that it could kill their vulnerable loved ones if they did not socially distance. Some teenagers have responded well; they are able to accept the situation, they do not feel afraid, they are relieved to be away from the stress of school, they have found online learning different but okay, and are happy to be home with family and feeling generally more relaxed and doing what is asked to take care of vulnerable loved ones. Other teenagers miss their friends, they feel lonely and isolated, they struggle with on-line learning and find it difficult to focus, and without their daily routine, these factors of change have created anxiety in those who were not anxious and heightened anxiety in those who are.
Without coping strategies to deal with what is happening and the unknown road ahead, some adolescents are at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety, anxiety disorders and depression, and may attempt to cope using unhealthy tools, such as alcohol or drugs, they may try to take control buy diving deeper into obsessive behaviours and addictive habits, they may seek to self-soothe by over-eating, or try to control anxiety through starvation. When we cannot change the situation, we can empower teenagers with healthy coping skills to manage what is happening and how they are feeling.
The first and most important item is family communication. Adolescents need emotion-focused communication, which means parents are open in expressing how they feel about what is happening. This helps a teenager feel better able to express their own feelings, and when feelings and emotions are open and seen, then coping strategies can be explored. Problems occur when parents keep their feelings to themselves, even when this is believed to help their teenager. What can happen is that a teenager sees that a parent is not able to engage in an emotion-focused conversation and then feels they need to protect that parent from emotion, and so the teenager keeps their feelings to themselves and tries to cope alone.
When communication is opened up, the conversation can move into deeper understanding about what is happening, how people are feeling about what is happening, and why they are feeling what they feel. It may be that a teenager is stressed because they cannot focus with online learning, which may contribute to fear-based thoughts about exam performance or university placement. The reason this teenager cannot focus is because their fear-based thoughts activate the amygdala in the brain, which causes the fight or flight response to be triggered, making it very difficult to concentrate or apply logic or focus. When this happens, it is possible to learn techniques to counter the fear-response to evoke calm which in turn will allow the prefrontal cortex area of the brain to function better, which aids focus and attention, while reducing the activity of the amygdala. A teenager may be worried that people they love may die, they may be experiencing distressing feelings and overwhelming worry, and they become obsessed about disinfecting things so that they don’t transmit anything to their parents or grandparents. This could develop into an anxiety disorder, which causes prolonged distress. Exploring together how you feel about what is happening, talking about death or fear of death, normalising it as part of our lives and how we cope with this, and identifying what your teenager needs to feel supported and this how support can be given, can go a long way towards easing anxiety and cultivating feelings of calm and security.
Some techniques to ease fear-based thoughts and anxiety include: breathing or muscle relaxation techniques, talking through worries and moving into solutions, identifying fears and applying logic and reason to formulate a more realistic point of view, modifying extreme and obsessive behaviours to create healthier patterns of behaviour, identifying healthy actions to manage the situation, learning to let go of what cannot be controlled and focus on what can with a healthy approach, engaging in activities that boost serotonin, endorphins and dopamine; hormones which generate positive feelings, and looking at ways to turn a difficult situation into a time of opportunity and possibility.
If you would like to explore how to support your teenager in managing anxiety, please get in touch:
Coaching Psychologist BSc MSc MBPsS MICF PCC
0034 620 741 361
Private office near Sotogrande, with consultations also available at Ocean Clinic Gibraltar and Atlantic Clinic Nueva Andalucia. Online sessions available via Zoom, Skype or Doxy.
Dalton L, Rapa E and Stein A (2020) Protecting the psychological health of children through effective communication about COVID-19, The Lancet: Child and Adolescent Health
Grubic N, Badovinac S, Johri A (2020) Student mental health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: A call for further research and immediate solutions. International journal of social psychiatry https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020925108