None of us knows what the new normal will look like, but for children it can be especially worrying. While most of us will be returning to our usual roles and jobs, for children – especially teenagers – everything looks like it has changed, and it doesn’t feel good.
Many will have coped with change before, for example changing year groups, friendship groups or moving to secondary school.
But the concerns I am seeing among teens I work with go much broader, and can feel overwhelming: concerns about their exam results and whether they will achieve fair grades for all their hard work; concerns about their future; will they have the summer they had hoped for and the opportunity for part-time holiday work, travel and good careers going forward?
Many are also dealing with illness, or loss of income within their families. For those who may already have struggled with anxiety or depression, the pandemic has disrupted treatment. But the lack of structure has also posed huge challenges for teenagers who did not have mental health issues before.
They worry about whether they are interacting with friends as much as everyone else. Many young people actually find social media hard work and worry about whether they are saying and doing the right thing on it.
After so much time in their own company, they can start to feel anxious about attending social occasions. Many will be upset they cannot hug and hold hands with their friends when they do see them.
Some may be depressed as well as anxious, and turned, or returned, to self-harming.
What can we as adults, teachers, parents do?
The most important thing is to reassure them that they will cope with the changes; they are competent and intelligent, and change is even useful. It is really good to have more practice with change, as everyone faces change throughout their lives. Those who handle it best – who can ‘go with the flow’ - will often save themselves a lot of unhappiness and heartache. There’s a lot of emotional growth in being flexible and adaptable.
And there are several tips I give teenagers themselves when they are absorbed in ever-decreasing, and destructive, circles of worry.
1. Acknowledge what you cannot change
First, there is no point in spending time worrying about things we cannot change. We know this as adults, or should do, but children really struggle with this concept. So if a teenager finds themselves doing this, they need to jump off the repetitive loop, the ‘thought train’ that is going round and round the rickety track in their head, and distract themselves. To truly distract themselves, teenagers need to completely fill their minds with something else - talk with a parent, ring a friend (talk not text), engage in a hobby or skill. I discuss ‘mindfulness’ and how important it is to engage in an activity and just focus on that activity while doing it, and not let thoughts from the past, or worry about the future, distract them or change their focus or emotions.
2. You cannot predict the future
Secondly, we discuss how unhelpful it is to predict the future. No one can predict the future and if teenagers try, they will often just put an anxious or negative spin on it to ‘feed’ their worry. So discuss with them how they can prepare themselves as best as they can for their future, rather than worry about it. This could include, for example, starting to read books for their ‘A’ Levels, learning to touch type, doing some fund raising or volunteering to enhance their CV, and keeping themselves healthy through exercise. You could talk to your teen about important factors employers look for other than academic grades such as team working, good communication skills, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, hard work and how your teen can demonstrate those good qualities.
3. You are not alone
I also advise young people to think of something they have in common with a friend. It might be they are going on to do the same ‘A’ Levels, it might be that they both like exercise or it could be that they both feel quite bored. I suggest they engage with a friend over a video call and do the activity they have in common together. For example, if they both like exercise, they may want to take it in turns each week to run a HIT session that they both do. If they are both bored, they could discuss a new skill they could learn together, such as sign language, Spanish or cooking. Doing an activity together tends to lead to enjoyment and laughter.
4. Stay active
Exercise and getting outdoors is crucial. Discuss the importance of going out of the house for daily exercise and contacting someone outside their household daily so that they are practising some social skills for when lockdown eases and social contact occurs face-to-face again. I advise teens to smile at strangers when they see them on a walk, to practice eye contact and eventually to make a comment such as “Isn’t it a lovely day”, or even just “hello”. This exposure is small but it helps prevent total avoidance of social contact, and will aid in reducing anxiety regarding this.
5. Challenges are good
Yes, the new normal will be a challenge. But young people are often very good at challenges, even those who don’t think they are. Tell them change is difficult for so many people, but your teen will not be doing it alone because you and all those around them who love them will be there to support them, verbally, emotionally – and as parents, physically, with lots of extra hugs if they want them. And, with any luck, they will radiate that love and support back to you.
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford