Three years ago almost to the day, our lives looked very different. We were in the early stages of the first lockdown, an unprecedented time, with the word “unprecedented” giving me the shivers!
The scariest thing about the pandemic, I found, was how it snatched away my control over my circumstances; I felt lost.
Research tells us that gen Z and gen alpha felt the same, and it has had a detrimental impact on their mental health.
Here are a few brief statistics to be aware of:
- 48% of Gen Z feel that Covid-19 has had an extreme or substantial impact on their life, with the top emotional response to the pandemic being anxiety.
- 83% of UK students agreed that the pandemic worsened their mental health.
Some of the most common factors contributing to anxiety included health concerns about friends and family, changes to structures at school or university, and the loss of social interaction.
Post-pandemic stress disorder: what is it?
Post-pandemic stress disorder (also called post-covid disorder) is not yet an officially recognized mental health condition.
However, what is known so far is that the pandemic has been shown to be ‘traumatic’ by psychological studies. Those most likely to experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) include:
- Those who had Covid-19 or a near-death experience
- Family members or key workers who witnessed a near-death experience or death of someone with Covid-19
- Those who learnt of the near-death experience or death of a family member or friend due to the virus
- Those who witnessed the devastation of the pandemic first hand on the front lines (hospital staff, key workers, medical examiners, journalists, etc.)
Beyond these individuals, researchers are also looking into how the pandemic has affected the mental health of the general population – including young people.
Signs a child may be struggling
Some children may still be struggling with the impact of Covid-19. Here are a few signs to look out for.
This involves refusing to acknowledge turbulent feelings, appearing ‘numb’, shutting down discussions about emotion with phrases like ‘I’m fine’ or ‘nothing’s wrong’. They may avoid being physically affectionate and/or become obsessed with ‘keeping busy’.
They may blame someone else or themselves for the trauma related to Covid-19. They may display symptoms of ‘hypervigilance’, meaning they become overly cautious or controlling of their surroundings in an attempt to offset the guilt. They may also struggle to trust the adults around them.
They may withdraw themselves or become disinterested in social events and settings that used to bring them joy, such as clubs and spending time with friends. They may also carefully avoid any situations that remind them of the trauma. It may also seem as if they trust their friends and those who care for them less than they did before.
This involves struggling to cope with any situations that, for whatever reason, remind them of the trauma. This could cause sudden, strange reactions to problematic situations or emergencies due to feeling overwhelmed. Potential ‘triggers’ could be a change in routine or visibility seeing reminders of their trauma.
Common physical symptoms include flashbacks to the emotions related to the trauma. They may also experience distressing nightmares, pain, nausea, sweating, or trembling.
Practical tips for managing excessive worry
So how can we help?
One way to address post-pandemic stress is to tackle feelings of worry. Worry can be debilitating for a child or young person, and it may be helpful to try some ‘interrupting negativity’ techniques to help reduce the impact of worry on day-to-day life.
Please note that feelings of worry cannot be boxed away indefinitely – it is essential to make time and space for the worries to be addressed and discussed so that the child or young person can recover.
One technique that I use with my clients is called ‘worry time’. I encourage clients to set aside ten minutes of the day when they are allowed to worry all they want and write down every single worrying thought that they have. Once completed, I ask them to cross out the worries that they can’t control and also write down as many solutions as possible to the ones they can control.
Then, once the time is up, they put aside their worry journal and are no longer allowed to worry about those things.
Create a worry box
A worry box is a box that you keep in a shared space where children can, at any point, post into the box a worry that they have written down on a piece of paper. You then set aside a certain time in the day or week (depending on how often the children need it) to open the box and discuss the worries inside. That allows the children a set time to express their worries.
Practical tips for managing children who are withdrawing
If you can sense that a child is withdrawing, here are a few techniques to help them feel grounded and safe so that they can eventually open up.
Honour their safe space
When a child or young person is expressing their need for safety, it is important not to force them to do otherwise. For example, if a child is using their bedroom as a place to withdraw, allow them the time and space to do that.
As a parent, I know how difficult that can be to acknowledge and accept, especially when you miss your child and can feel them pulling away. If we fight this, we are telling the child or young person they are not permitted access to a space in which they feel safe and so they must endure spaces where they feel less safe.
Utilise verbal grounding techniques
A child or young person who feels emotionally unsafe needs reassurance regarding the things that they would usually take for granted. It’s important to reinforce feelings of safety by saying things such as, ‘Mum and Dad will always do everything we can to keep you safe’. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to acknowledge and respond to the emotional insecurity the child or young person is currently experiencing. Other phrases to try include, ‘Our house is a safe place’ or ‘you are always safe at home/school’.
Utilise physical grounding techniques
When a child or young person feels emotionally unsafe, they are often experiencing the emotional needs of their much younger selves more vividly than usual. So a ten-year-old who normally does not need much physical affection may suddenly be much more open to hugs and cuddles and holding hands. That is because they are unsure as to how to process this strange new threat emotionally, so they may revert to their earlier childhood needs and responses.
A three or four-year-old needs physical affection to feel safe and protected from the world, so it is likely that an older child or young person who feels emotionally unsafe could experience that need again too.
Watch Now: Lily-Jo Chats About Post-Pandemic Stress
As parents, teachers, and carers, it’s important that we too reflect on our own mental health and get help when we need it. It is exhausting caring for someone who is struggling with anxiety – especially if we too are struggling.
Your school can also be an excellent source of information, along with the GP practice that you are registered with.
If you notice that your child or a child in your care is experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Angry outbursts
- Nightmares or sleep
- Tearier than usual
This should be an alarm bell to you to seek further assistance from a qualified counsellor, mental health nurse, or GP.
Finally, it’s also important that along the way you are kind to your own mind. This involves practicing good self-care so that you can set yourself up to be the very best version of yourself.
If you found this article helpful, please check out the following resources on anxiety, life online, and post-pandemic stress.
- The Lily-Jo Project’s article, Teaching Your Kids to Recognize Signs of Stress: 5 Practical Tips
- The Lily-Jo Project’s article, The Long-Term Effects of Stress on Your Family…What Can You Do About It?
Talking to Children About Mental Health
If you’d like to learn more about how to support the next generation of young people, check out my new book Talking to Children About Mental Health.
This book is a practical guide designed to help adults understand the unique mental health challenges facing children, teenagers, and students today.
Some of the key themes covered include:
- Anxiety and cancel culture
- Self-esteem and self-harm in the digital world
- Climate anxiety and global grief
- Post-pandemic stress disorder
- And more!
It’s suitable for parents, grandparents, teachers, youth workers and anyone in a position of care or interested in the future of mental health and supporting the next generation.
About the Author: Lily-Jo
Lily-Jo is a qualified mental health counsellor, counselling supervisor, and senior coach at Unstoppable Life Coaching. She is also the founder of mental health organisation, The Lily-Jo Project, which specialises in online digital wellbeing resources for children, teens and adults of all ages. Her brand new book Talking To Children About Mental Health, focuses on the unique challenges that gen z and gen alpha are facing, and how we as adults can help them.