Twas the night before school’s back, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except…
- One parent hiding in the toilet scrolling social media to get some peace;
- Two teenagers sleeping until 1PM on weekends;
- Three children fighting over the XBOX controller;
- One parent checking out a place to hide said XBOX controller;
- Two parents changing the Apple ID password after their child spent $65 on their account to buy V-Bucks, Robux, or any other type of BUX.
Seriously though, a 2018 survey found that men spend up to 7 hours a year in the toilet in an effort to get some “peace and quiet”. Of more concern though, is a recent study out of Macquarie University which found that 60% of parents and 88% of teachers are concerned about the mental health of young people as a result of COVID-19. More than half of the 350 adults surveyed were also concerned about their own mental health.
COVID-19 will impact our mental health in many ways, but one of the key ways it does is by triggering one of our most uncomfortable psychological states – uncertainty. Human beings generally do not like uncertainty, and for good reason. We have learned to associate it with threat. If our ancient ancestors ignored that rustling in the bushes as they went on their morning hunting expedition, then there was a good chance that they would not be coming home that day. They simply could not afford to assume it was not a bear, and as such, we have developed a very strong anxiety reaction to uncertainty.
We can have various problematic and extreme reactions to uncertainty. Look no further than panic buying 150 twenty-four packs of toilet paper, just in case you can not access any more for the next 120 years. Young people are not so interested in panic buying, but they do have a range of unhelpful reactions to uncertainty that parents may have seen. These include refusing reasonable instructions, not wanting to do on-line schooling, anger, aggression, and wanting to avoid leaving the house or even seeing friends.
So here are some key pointers to help manage uncertainty as we get back to something at least roughly approximating a “normal” life.
1. Validate and do not dismiss
As adults, we have a far greater capacity to manage uncertainty than children thanks to our more intricately networked pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for managing big emotions). For adults, uncertainty can revolve around our jobs or our mortgage/rent. For young people, it can be questions like
- Will my friends still want to be friends with me?
- It has been so long, what if my friends have changed?
- Will I fit in?
- What if my friend tries to hug me, what do I do then?
Consider the difference between “don’t worry about it, it will be fine” (dismiss) AND “I know you have spent almost a whole term away from school, it makes so much sense that you are worried about those things”. Validating a young person’s anxiety helps to make them feel understood, which in turn helps them to regulate their emotions.
2. Listen more, talk less
One temptation, especially with teens and older kids, is to lecture. To give our own brand of wisdom on life’s struggles. While there is huge merit to passing on wisdom to our kids, we need to know when to talk and when to listen. If unsure, err on the side of listening. When you listen (point your entire body to them, get eye contact, put down your phone) you send your young person a really important message – “not only do I think you are important, but I think what you say is important too”. When young people feel heard and understood, we bring more certainty to their lives.
3. Reset the routine
There is going to be an enormous shift in routine. While young people know the school routine well, they have come to know the home routine even better over the past 2 months. So expect some push back on the home routine as young people get used to school routine again. Pick the parts of your home routine you really want to be consistent (e.g., bed time, meal time), and make sure you give young people some choice and flexibility on other things. This sense of control gives certainty.
4. Reassure but do not avoid or enable
Parental anxiety can get in the way. When returning to school, be careful of labouring the point of “don’t hug, don’t touch, wash your hands, don’t touch your face”. While we need to educate young people on what keeps them safe, talking too much about these things sends a message that school and the world is not safe. Instead, ask them questions about what they think they need to do to help keep themselves safe at school. Let them tell you. A young person is very good at sniffing out caregiver anxiety, and this anxiety in turn compounds their anxiety.
5. Have faith in the teachers
Teachers are a source of tremendous certainty for young people and provide secure attachment. A warm smile from a young person’s teacher as they enter the classroom can be all it takes to turn an anxious brain into one that feels safe. Know that teachers have also been through COVID-19, and parents maintaining positive relationships with teachers (even on-line) helps young people to feel more certain.
So there is no happy COVID to all, and to all a good night. But there are many lessons we can take from this time of uncertainty. One of the key ones I have learned is just how resilient young people can be. As adults, we should never underestimate this. Yet at the same time we need to recognise our capacity, and indeed responsibility, to help bring more certainty into their otherwise recently uncertain worlds.