In photo: Latisha Lister-Burgess
Adults should help children stay connected with friends and family and encourage them to talk
On the face of it, our young people have shown remarkable resilience as the Covid-19 pandemic has hit their academic, family and social lives like a battering ram. That surface robustness however does not tell the full story about the hidden impact it could be having on their mental health.
According to psychologists in Bermuda, a huge strain has been placed on the younger generation’s coping mechanisms through the disruption to their daily lives, uncertainty surrounding their future and sadness over the loss of social activities and celebratory milestones.
There is great hope that with support from parents and other adults, we can eventually emerge into a place where everyone can reflect positively how we came through the other side. First, we must understand exactly what our children and teenagers are dealing with.
Dr Claudia Cobon, a senior psychologist at the Solstice clinic, has worked with many clients aged 14 and upwards: “Young people do seem to be adjusted on the surface. But I don’t think we should be complacent,” she said.
“We have seen an increase in anxiety and mood disorders among young people, which I believe to be a result of the interruption to normal day to day activities, but also the bigger milestones that young people look forward to. This has led to some maladaptive coping, such as an increase in eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal ideation.”
In addition to reduced connections with classmates and friends, graduation ceremonies have been scaled down, internship programmes have gone online and even opportunities for summer jobs are more limited. This disconnection feeds feelings of isolation and demotivation.
Dr Cobon explained: “It’s the disruption they are experiencing. They are in and out of quarantine or lockdown, there is disruption to schooling and they’re coming on and offline. Probably more of their focus is on not seeing friends.
“Young people have gone off to university and straight into dormitories where they never meet people. They are not experiencing orientation week and they are having all their lectures and tutorials online.”
There are also clear consequences for the sense of unpredictability.
“We tend to see eating disorders as a way of trying to control,” she said. “There’s a lot of anxiety or uncertainty. The eating disorder might not be a rebellion, but it gives them a way of controlling.”
Parents can help by encouraging their children to express their feelings.
“Talking can mean they are able to validate their experience,” she continued. “Give them a space to talk, give them a space to think and talk about what’s happening. We need to help young people increase connections with people in the community. Check in with people. The light at the end of the tunnel is that if we are doing this in a meaningful way, young people will be able to recover and look back on this time having learnt something.”
School life has not been easy for younger children either.
Susan Richardson, the director of counselling services at Family Centre, pointed to an increase in referrals of primary school children: “I feel really bad for our young children who feel hopeless and helpless,” she said. “We are seeing a lot of anxiety and depression. They may be having sleep challenges, feeling irritable, getting clingy and feeling worried about whether they can get Covid, or whether their parents can get it. Some of them are restless.
“Children are reporting feeling sad or hopeless, their appetite is changing, they are eating less or more than they used to. We have seen a lot of referrals from schools about how children are interacting with each other – how to play, how to connect.”
The interruption to school life, compounded by face masks making communication more difficult, has weakened their ability to build healthy relationships with classmates.
“Schools have been saying that some children are finding it difficult to slow themselves down, they’re unable to connect and play, feeling frustrated. The teachers let them out for recess and they go into full-blown running around, not knowing how to slow themselves down in ways that are safe for themselves and other children.”
Some children face extra challenges at home because their parents may be stressed or overwhelmed.
“The child might not be feeling the support or as connected to their parents as they need,” Ms Richardson said. “The first step is that the adult needs to be able to make sense of the child and what’s happening and what to do about it. They need to assess the child’s mental health, look out for anything that does not feel as though it’s healthy.
“Ensure that the young person stays connected with friends and family. Ensure that they have physical activities that allow them to connect with others. Have fun when the sun shines. Get some fresh air. Make sure their sleep habits are healthy. Limit the time spent taking in negative information.
“Children are very resilient. Most will manage to cope when they are feeling connected with their parents and peers. There’s still hope for the future. That’s big. The bottom line is people know that change can come.”
Latisha Lister-Burgess, the executive director of the Employees Assistance Programme of Bermuda, has first-hand experience through her sons, who were aged 2 and 4 at the start of the pandemic.
“My younger son started virtual preschool. It made no sense to him,” she said. “That’s still the play age. Their main job is to play and have fun. He generally struggled with that transition. My older son, when he started primary school, he struggled in terms of not being able to see people.”
She said the lack of connection to peers and teachers had impacted the mental health of small children.
“When you are more isolated, you don’t learn social skills such as how we play well together, how we share, how we interact with manners,” she said. “The conversation needs to focus on how we make up the possible social skills losses. We have to acknowledge what has happened and recognise we are in this situation.”
Parents can look out for signs in their children’s behaviour, such as acting inappropriately for their age: “If they’re clingy when they’re not normally clingy – what’s that behaviour telling you?”
You can also find ways of helping your children connect: “Realistically, maybe we don’t have 30 kids coming together for a birthday party, but we can still have small play groups,” she said.
She insisted the future is not bleak.
“Young people are much more willing than some older generations to seek out help,” she continued. “Those doing well are having those conversations with the family or peers. Almost everyone in their peer group is going through this as well.
“I think we have to be gentle with kids right now. Ask them how they are today. The more you can talk to your kids, the more they get out of their head and not see it as a specific problem for them, but something that is happening for their generation.”
The Government’s Emotional Wellbeing Hotline, manned by registered psychologists, runs from 5pm to 9pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, on 543-1111. The Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute’s 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line is 239-1111.