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Experts warn that the pandemic may lead to a mental health crisis amongst children. Parents know they need to act, but it can be hard figuring out what steps to take. Our experts recommend celebrating the small-wins and using empathetic listening.
Socialising is crucial for robust mental health, which the pandemic brought into sharp focus. Mental health issues continue to skyrocket as stress, isolation and loneliness take their toll on our wellbeing. However, while we are all struggling with varying degrees of social deprivation, children and teenagers are extra-vulnerable to its psychological impact.
“Numerous studies show that social media can lead to anxiety and low-self-esteem amongst young people. Our unbalanced work-life ratio also means that more and more parents are spending less time with their children. As a result, children are lonelier than ever before.”
— Dr Marta Ra, CEO of Paracelsus Recovery, explained to Gulf News.
Forming social bonds is a crucial part of our developmental years. During adolescence, we shape our sense of personal identity and independence through our peer-groups, relationships and hobbies. However, young people today have lost these opportunities for self-discovery. As a result, many feel lost and lonely, as the pandemic hinders their emotional and social development.
Lockdown is Lonely on Easy Street.
At Paracelsus Recovery, we work exclusively with ultra-high-net-worth individuals and their families. Since the pandemic began, we have seen a surge in referrals for young people struggling with loneliness-induced mental health issues, such as gaming addiction or eating disorders.
From our experience, emotional neglect is a common issue for children raised in ultra-wealthy households. For example, research (Luthar, 2005) has shown that affluent children are more predisposed to addiction because they are far more isolated, both physically and emotionally, from their parents. One reason for this is that successful parents often often have jam-packed, 24/7 work schedules, and rely heavily on nannies to look after their children.
Consequently, children who grow up in wealthy households often battle deep-seated loneliness, which the pandemic has brought to the surface. For example, as successful families are accustomed to not having the time to see each other, suddenly having nothing but time together is making them realise how little they know each other, which has increased that sense of inner loneliness. Combined with these difficult experiences, many teenagers are struggling with the transition to virtual learning and find it hard to pay attention without the social stimulation of a classroom. When this happens, their grades can suffer, which, in turn, negatively impacts their self-esteem.
How Does Loneliness Impact Mental Health?
Loneliness can be lethal for our health. It weakens our immune system, increases our stress levels, and fuels our inner critic. Our ‘inner critic’ is that harsh voice in our head judging our every move. It can be unforgiving and unrealistic, often leading us down a rabbit hole of negativity and increased loneliness.
“Tragically, suicide remains the second leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year olds, and it increased by 178% from 2007–2017 amongst 10 to 14-year-olds.”
— Dr Marta Ra, CEO of Paracelsus Recovery, told to Gulf News.
Young people are especially vulnerable to a damaging inner critic. This is because adolescents can be extremely judgmental of each other, especially on social media. As a result, negative experiences, such as cyberbullying and loneliness, can increase the authority of the inner critic. In so doing, a young person may find themselves battling low self-esteem, alienation and a sense of hopelessness. These are difficult experiences, and they can sow the seeds for depression or suicidal ideation.
How Can Parents Help Their Kids Combat This Loneliness?
1. Practice Empathetic Listening.
Empathy is one of the strongest tools we have to combat loneliness. Empathetic listening means trying to listen to someone with the intent to understand, not fix or respond. If your child is struggling, try to show as much empathy as possible and be open about your own struggles. For example, although a cancelled prom may seem small in comparison to a pandemic, try to remember how important your prom felt at the time, and sympathise with their experience.
2. Encourage Positive-Self Talk.
If your child’s sense of loneliness is leading to negative thoughts, try to help them find healthy coping mechanisms for these thoughts. For instance, they could counteract each thought with two positives. Alternatively, when the harsh critic pipes in, tell your child to ask themselves, ‘would I say this to a friend?’
3. Celebrate the Small-Wins.
Finally, while loneliness is caused by our situations, it is also heavily influenced by our state of mind. To combat these negative thoughts, try to find ways to bring joy into your day-to-day lives. One powerful example of such is to celebrate every small-win. For instance, celebrate when class is over for the day or an assignment is complete. This persistent sense of achievement can help your child keep a positive outlook.
Finally, while we cannot control the need for social distance, we can control how we respond to it. By helping your child feel connected to you, encouraging positive self-talk and finding joy in the day-to-day, you can help them navigate pandemic-induced loneliness. However, above all else, if you are worried your child is in danger, seek professional help as soon as possible.