COVID 19 – Stress and Social Isolation in Children and Teenagers
Stress, a simple six letter word that immediately conjures up feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. But what is stress, and why is it such a bad word? The word stress is actually the short version of stress response, which is how our brain and body identify there is a problem or challenge in our life, our environment that needs our attention. In the last few years, people believed that stress was bad and must be avoided at all costs. Everywhere we turned, there were tips on avoiding stress, managing stress, decreasing stress. Yet, despite all the papers and tips and suggestions, it seemed that each year, people became more and more stressed. Why? The answer is simple, we have been made to believe that all stress is bad. The reality is, most stress is not bad, it is good, in fact, it is a necessary and normal response of human life, and avoiding stressful situations is more harmful to our health and well being. Regular, everyday stress actually makes us stronger and more resilient. Stress gives us the opportunity to learn how to cope, to problem solve, to mange our emotional responses, and to develop skills and strategies that help us become stronger and better equipped to handle the next stressful event.
There are three types of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic:
- Positive stress is usually short-term, can occur multiple times a day, and helps us to learn how to adapt and grow e.g. exam, giving presentation, try out for team
- Tolerable stress involves a situation where there is more serious impact e.g. death of pet, divorce. Tolerable stress occurs multiple times in life and with supportive intervention and care, it is unlikely to have any lasting negative effects
- Toxic stress is prolonged and extremely bad e.g. sexual abuse, neglect
The key is not just reducing the amount of stress but learning how best to deal with it. If you let another person deal with the stress or choose not to deal with it, then the child/teenager will not learn the skills needed to take on the daily challenges of life. Eventually, the child/teenager will feel in a constant state of anxiety and hopelessness and may seek out inappropriate or unsafe ways to help manage his/her stress e.g. substance abuse, self harm, bullying.
What is Toxic Stress?
During a stressful experience, a child/teenager’s body releases stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol which makes the heart beat faster, feel short of breath, experience sweaty palms and butterflies in stomach: the flight, fright, fight response. When activated, the fight or flight system bypasses the logical decision-making part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) and activates primitive reactions that protect the child/teenager from danger, threats, etc.
In toxic stress, the flight, fright, fight response is always on resulting in the stress hormones constantly flooding the brain and body causing inflammation. In a nutshell, the stress response no longer protects the child/teenager and instead damages health and wellbeing. If left untreated, toxic stress can damage the developing brain by disrupting learning, behaviour, growth and immunity. Research has shown that untreated toxic stress can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide, and lifelong health problems including asthma, heart problems and autoimmune disorders.
Stress and Social Isolation
For kids, especially teenagers, friends are their lifeline. In fact, many teens consider friendships and peer relationships more important than family. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) estimates that 89 percent of the world’s student population are presently out of school because of COVID-19. Normally, this would not be an issue, however, with the implementation of mandatory/voluntary self-isolation, lockdowns, and social distancing rules many teenagers feel they are under ‘house arrest’ and are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
How Parents Can Help
- Keep activities as consistent and routine as possible in the home
- Model positive coping strategies and behaviors
- Encourage teens to help out at home e.g. chores, cooking, yard work
- When feeling overwhelmed, try deep breathing and relaxation exercises with child/teenager
- Reframe the stress response: talk about the concerns and look at positive outcomes
- Educate self about COVID -19 (use only reputable websites: WHO, CDC, NIAID) *
- Try not to nag, interrogate or invalidate child/teens concerns
- Maintain hope and optimism
- Sit with teenager and ask ‘what is causing the stress? Explore possible solutions
- Ensure teenager has no access to drugs, alcohol, sharp objects, weapons
- Set up a daily routine for family e.g. meals, bedtime, chores, homework
- Encourage teen to eat at healthy diet, exercise plan, family time, sleep, social media time
- If child/teen has a mental disorder or other health aliment, follow the treatment plan, ensure follow up with Doctor, any prescribed medications are taken, counselling sessions continue (most visits can now be conducted on-line)
- Monitor for any changes in behavior, mood, appearance, etc. Kids are at high risk of self-harm, substance abuse and/or suicide during this difficult time
- Know the signs of potential suicide risk (see Blog 13) and seeks help immediately if child/teen appears suicidal. For a list of global Suicide Hotline numbers please refer to suicide.org or www.iasp.info
- Encourage teen to connect with friend’s via social media, phone calls, zoom, what’s app, etc.
- Ask child/teen what he/she has heard about COVID-19, allow him/her to express feelings or concerns. Let him/her know it is okay to be afraid or mad and help your child/teen deal with those feelings.
- Be supportive, understanding, show love, validate concerns, listen, spend one on one time with child/teen
- Be available to answer questions about things he/she sees or hears on COVID-19.
- Reinforce good practices like washing hands, covering mouths when coughing or sneezing, and not sharing food
Suicide Warning Signs
The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) uses the acronym “IS PATH WARM” to identify the warning signs that a person may be suicidal:
I – Ideation about suicide
S – Substance abuse, e.g. alcohol, drugs
P – Purposelessness in life
A – Anxiety or feeling overwhelmed
T – Trapped, feeling there is no way out
H – Hopelessness or helplessness
W – Withdrawn from family, friends and activities
A – Anger or rage
R – Recklessness e.g. engaging in unsafe, risky or harmful behaviours
M – Mood change
*WHO: World Health Organization www.who.int
CDC: Center for Disease Control www.cdc.gov
NIAID: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases www.niaid.nih.gov