Life has the habit of throwing an unexpected curve ball when we least expect it. The pandemic which caught the world by surprise early this year, was one such curve ball. As people across the globe struggled to cope with the new normal, mental health appears to have taken a back seat with many people reluctant to acknowledge its importance and seek professional help, even though governments and health organisations have put much emphasis on it.
As parents are choosing between between blended or distance learning where there is an option, many still face the challenge of dealing with relationships that are strained in many ways. Add to that, the surmounting pressure of young adults who have finished university or have had to deal with unwelcome changes to their life plans due to fear and uncertainty, and there’s no denying that there are more than just a handful of emotions to deal with at this point. From frustrations over financial constraints to the scrapping of every dream, stress levels for many could be spiking.
Aware of the importance of supportive measures, three leading psychologists weigh in with their advice on how best to navigate the times for the different age groups.
Toddlers to Pre-Teens (0 to 13 years)
For first-time parents or those who have a brood of children in this age group, managing expectations, activities, routines and schedules can be a dauting task. "While it’s good to have a routine, do not try to run through your to-do list during your stay at home time," says Dr Haneen Jarrar, a CDA-licensed psychologist at Insights Psychology (insightspsychology.com) and with over 11 years of experience helping children and families. "Remember you are not working from home, you are at your home trying to work during a global pandemic. Be gentle with yourself and your family and save some time and space for mentally and physically processing what is going on," she explains.
For children from 0 to 8 years old, it is essential to realise that parents create their reality for them, and they usually require structure, consistency and clarity. "They borrow their emotional states from the environment around them," says Dr Jarrar, adding that if we create a soothing, calm environment then the child will most likely thrive even within the uncertainty that these times bring. Simple and structured activities, that are repeated on a daily basis are most important for toddlers and young children as this gives them a safety net and brings a calm to the chaos in the change that they are experiencing. Spending time in nature and socialising with others, within regulations, are a great way to keep them engaged and thriving, she says.
For children in the 8 to 13-year bracket, it is important to remember that there are major development changes taking place. To get through the pandemic, many children at this age have an unhealthy attachment to screen time and games, often preferring to spend time online, rather than outside. "In such cases I always urge parents to get their teenagers active," says Dr Jarrar. "Getting active will give your teenager a boost in self-esteem, healthy lifestyle, lots of happy hormones such as endorphins floating around." Apart from activities like swimming or cycling (at sunset if it is too hot earlier), Dr Jarrar offers the following few tips:
• Create projects together to boost planning skills and increase motivation. Research shows that the hormone dopamine is released when someone engages in an activity and is productive in some way. Being an active and efficient member around the house is also crucial for your teen’s self-esteem, which might take a hit during the teen years.
• Address uncertainty, anxiety or worry and try to brainstorm solutions on how to navigate these emotions together. It is vital that your teen gets all the facts from you concerning the pandemic and understands the effect that this might have on everyone involved.
• Talk about feelings and emotions. Naming the feelings, normalizing them and creating ways to handle them will create a wholesome emotionally intelligent teenager and adult.
Teens & Young Adults (14 to 25)
Dr Clarice Mendonca, clinical neuropsychologist at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre (psychiatryandtherapy.ae) in Dubai Healthcare City, says it is important for parents to work through their own experience of loss as they witness their kids moving from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. Parents need to ensure that they take time to celebrate and work with the new changes that their teenager or young adult is witnessing through their achievements. Those who have been quarantined and are considering distance learning with the opening of schools, may feel subject to further frustration as they remain limited in their physical interactions with friends.
For those between 14 and 18 years, Dr Mendonca says it is important to listen, communicate and collaborate. "Listen first, then act and listen with your ears, eyes, mind and heart." By doing this, she explains, parents will notice changes in their adolescents and will be better able to respond effectively. "Communicate with words and gestures and avoid assuming what is going on in your adolescents’ mind," she says, adding that it is important to be honest with them about your own struggles. By collaborating on a plan that works for all involved, adolescents will feel respected, included and in control and this makes it easier for them to comply.
As for those in the 18 to 25 year age bracket, we must be mindful that their struggle is far greater, as they are young adults who are at the only starting out with their careers. Not only are paid internships and jobs scarce, but these young adults also face the burden of being furloughed due to the pandemic, putting them at the first stages of career depression.
Dr Mendonca, who mainly deals with young adults, especially those going through life transitions (job, career, family, relationships), offers the following tips.
• Check in. Avoid assuming that you know how to help them and what they need and want, or that your young adult will always let you know when something’s up. Speak with and not at them, avoid unsolicited advice, and respect their wish to not want to talk about their feelings.
• Be attuned to changes in behaviour. When you notice such changes, express your concerns, and/or seek help.
• Do not be afraid to say that you also feel frustrated/stuck, or do not know how to help or what to expect. This validates the person’s own experiences (‘I am not alone’) and encourages them to seek solace and support.
Grandparents and senior citizens
An often neglected or forgotten group of people is senior citizens who are either living in joint families, old age homes, or are caught in a quarantine without children, peer group or friends. On the other extreme of this equation, are those who have been quarantined with their families during the border lockdown, finding themselves in unfamiliar territory for an extended period of time, or even worse, suffering the loss of their significant other. "In this phase of life, it is also normal that a certain amount of regret and despair is present. Due to the fast-paced lifestyle and often fragmented family structures, senior citizens often feel forgotten and lonely. This can even be more acute under our current circumstances," explains Dr Saliha Afridi of the Lighthouse Arabia (lighthousearabia.com).
That said, we must remember that the pandemic is most likely not their first crisis and they are probably better experienced than other age groups in dealing with the uncertainty, putting the younger audience in a position of benefit if they are willing to listen to the wisdom they hold due to their age. To remain in a healthy state of mind, what works best is to reflect on the highlights as well as the losses in the previous phases or moments in life and work towards closing those chapters to reach a sense of completeness, explains Dr Afridi. "This will enable you to be more present in this moment and embrace the current role of an elder, no longer needed to work hard but realise the value you add through your presence."
To benefit caretakers and family members who are entrusted to caring for their elderly parents, Dr Afridi offers the following tips.
• As younger generations are more accustomed to connecting via digital platforms and devices, we need to be mindful that it is probably not as ‘normal’ or easy for our senior citizens. Patience and practical assistance might be needed to connect in this way to enhance the relationship and sense of belonging.
• I would suggest to our senior citizens, in relation to themselves, to reflect on the meaningful moments of life, the significant experiences and encounters with others and not only on whether successful outcomes or goals have been achieved.
• In this phase of life, it is also normal that a certain amount of regret and despair is present. Acknowledgment thereof is really important as that creates the balance which is necessary for wisdom.