COVID Fatigue and the impact on young Australians
Over the past 18 months, our country and the world has been shackled by an invisible invader and to put it quite frankly- we are over it! At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health professionals anticipated a mental health pandemic and sadly this has turned out to be the case, with the virus not only impacting us physically but socially, emotionally and psychologically.
With the country in and out of lock down and society dealing with the on again off again rollercoaster, our sense of control over life has dissipated and for young people this is exhausting, distressing, depressing and disappointing. So much so, that there is now a term for the feeling- COVID Fatigue. Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist and Adjunct Professor at University of Queensland School of Psychology, describes it as; “Fatigue that results from the constant threat system activation. The constant unknowing and sense of restriction caused by the virus and lack of freedom that results. The feeling of being shackled by the virus and not being able to live life.”
During our adolescent years, our social world is our epicentre and the rites of passage and social milestones, like school formals, learning to drive, sporting events and final exams that occur are monumental and defining. “It’s quite devastating for young people who want to meet new people and connect with their friends, particularly during the acute periods of lock down,” comments Dr Steindl. “Their worlds at this time would usually be expanding but instead they are feeling disconnected and isolated.”
Humans are a social species. We need to feel connected and a sense of belonging. COVID has threatened this and our feeling of social safeness. Dr Steindl says; “our sense of social safeness has taken a hit and suddenly, other people are the threat, and we worry about being near others.”
“As a social species, what makes us feel happy and safe is our social safeness. When this is ‘all over’ we may need to look at how to transition back to ‘normality’ and feeling socially safe once again.”
Parents and children alike, may also be feeling the impact on home life with it becoming multi-purpose, both an office, school and gym whilst maintaining its traditional function. Dr Steindl has seen the effects of this on many households. “This shift of bringing the outside in, has caused a simmering discourse of stress and anxiety for families. Whilst a sense of exhaustion and fatigue from it all may prevail, we have also seen resilience and a growth mindset in many.”
Dr Steindl is part of an international research group looking at post-traumatic stress but also post-traumatic growth. There are many examples during this time of strength arising from adversity. “Humans have a great propensity to develop compassion for each others and for themselves. Traumatic experiences, such as COVID, can leave them with stress, but also offer the opportunity to grow, personally, emotionally and in relationships. Common humanity prevails with a good sense of compromise for the other. These are some hard but good experiential lessons for young people.”
For parents trying to live with adolescents (and children) who feel like their life trajectory and plans for the future have gone awry, there are things you can do to help. Dr Steindl says the most important thing is to validate feelings. Here are three practical steps to help your child (and yourself) through these troubling times.
Dr Steindl’s Advice for parents:
Step 1. Listen, validate and encourage.
Parents being there to listen with presence and mental agility provides the opportunity for young people to talk when they feel comfortable doing so. Listening with open ears and minds and validating the young person’s feelings helps them know that is okay to feel disappointed, annoyed, frustrated and sad. The time to talk might not come when you expect it, but it’s important to both provide the opportunity and be ready when that opportunity arises. For example, an opportunity may arise in the car where there is less awkwardness, removing the sometimes uncomfortable feeling of direct eye contact or face to face communication. Young people really benefit from being able to have their experience without being told what to do or how to feel. Validate how they are feeling and offer compassion and support and positive thoughts about future opportunities. The world is still at your feet, it just looks a little different at the moment.
Step 2. Provide the opportunity for movement, creativity, and playfulness.
As a lot of extracurricular activities and normal routines for young people have been upturned, parents have had to step up and embrace their creative side to make the home fun, particularly during hard lock downs or periods where the virus peaks. Children can sense the simmering stress or upheaval of this and it’s important to make the home environment both comfortable and safe, and playful and stimulating. Creating physical and intellectual challenges for your kids or the entire household or embracing creative projects can make home life seem less mundane and infuse some fun and creativity back into everyone’s lives. It’s important to acknowledge here that parents are also doing it tough with many experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety and COVID Fatigue. Practicing self-compassion and self-care has never been so important. You can learn more about self-compassion here.
Step 3. Keep a keen eye out for your young person’s strengths and affirm them!
We all have memories of moments when an adult or significant person, noticed something special in us and affirmed this with a comment or an action. The human species has a powerful tendency to show resilience in the face of adversity and young people do this particularly well. As adults or parents, we often notice this strength, but we don’t always affirm it. It is a wonderful gift to tell your child, or another person for that matter, that they have done something special. It may be a small act of kindness to another, a show of compassion or empathy, or perhaps they have shown patience and resilience when things didn’t go their way. Noticing these moments of strength and affirming it is important, particularly during stressful times. It might just be a note, or an email, a simple text or a comment over dinner but the significance to the other is great. This truly is a special gift from parent to child.
If you notice your child is struggling emotionally, it is important to seek help. Start by visiting your GP and putting a plan in place to support your young person through this testing period.