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Understanding teenage grief and loss amid COVID-19

By Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor

“The world outside is wide so I keep telling myself, I’m safe inside. But the four walls are creeping near as the life I once knew fades into fear. My emotions are starting to drive me insane! I want to scream and to shout! I want to go OUT!”

The poem, written by a Form One pupil, was sent to a member of our Crisis Intervention team of psychologists. It captures the feelings expressed by many teenagers as they adjust to a new normal that was unplanned and thrust upon them without much warning.

Teenagers are social beings. They live to see their friends and the peer groups that have been a constant part of their life over the years. Many of them thought that the present stay-at-home measures would only last a couple of weeks and they would easily return to their former way of life and to a sense of normalcy. So, the first two weeks were not that bad as they stayed at home, listened to music, chatted for hours on their phones, and slept until noon most days.

But it’s been more than a month! Boredom and fear have taken over. The grieving and loss have begun.

While public health efforts have been focused on containing the spread of COVID-19 in the population, much less if any attention has been paid to the psychological consequences of this disaster and its effects on the adolescent population.

While some teens seem to be coping well, parents are phoning in to say that their teenagers are devastated and mourning the losses of their years of study in preparation for final exams, planned graduations, leaving school and going to work or to universities.

They are frustrated, anxious, tearful and at times, have withdrawn from their families. They miss their friends, hanging out at the malls and at the movies, extracurricular activities, playing sports, and the social interaction of groups and face-to-face encounters that characterise the life of a normal teenager.

Many are angry that they cannot meet up with their friends and there are those whose parents are frontline workers, another cause for anxiety and worry.

For some teens, school has now become the best place that they knew! Nostalgia has set in. Even the teachers and classes they avoided are wistfully wished for again as they miss the ritual of going to classes and the conversations with friends.

Online schooling hooked them for a bit, but they are no longer interested in doing schoolwork. For others, a closed door greets the parent on most days and sulking and withdrawal behaviours are the norm. How can we understand this stressful and uncertain time for teenagers and help them to cope?


Coping strategies

Teenagers and young adults will cope better during this pandemic if they get adequate sleep, eat healthy meals and exercise regularly, even walking briskly around the house or jogging on spot for a few minutes.

Sleep is important and increases a positive mood but sleeplessness or sleeping too much will affect their overall mental functioning, so work out a schedule of times with them: to wake up and to go to bed. Routine and structure will help them to cope better and this is particularly important for young people who may be struggling with anxiety or depression.

Isolation, boredom and loneliness can increase mental illness for teenagers with pre-existing mental health disorders. Watch out for signs of prolonged sadness, depression, irritability, anger and talks of suicide ideation (wanting to die/wishing life was over). It is, therefore, necessary for them to maintain connections with loved ones who would communicate that they care about and support them.

Take this opportunity of being at home, to listen to your teenagers without being tempted to override what they say or impose judgement. Let them talk, or not talk if they so choose.

Give them the space for quiet time, to experiment with their creative side, or to virtually connect with friends. Encourage teenagers to plan for the months ahead and to create to-do lists. Be positive and optimistic with them even if you may not feel this way at times.

Your children and teens will look towards you for psychological cues and will note whether you are obsessively worried about COVID-19 or have a sense of safety and calm.

If you need to vent, do it in a space where your children and teens cannot hear you as they may not accurately process what you have said. And when it gets unbearable and you need a listening ear, call us.

Go to our website at www.psychologytt.org  and press the red button. We are available for you or for someone you know. Take care. Be safe.


Dr Nakhid-Chatoor is a clinical and educational psychologist, and immediate past President of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Psychologists (TTAP).