PARENTS may be concerned their children - particularly teenagers - are spending too much time on screens and social media as families adjust to social distancing and isolation.
But Newcastle psychologist Lynn Jenkins says now, perhaps more than ever, it is important for teenagers to stay connected to their friends.
"I know it's a huge conversation - but it is the way they socialise," Ms Jenkins said.
"It is a big part of their social world, and right now, they need that connection.
"But, with more time on their hands, it might be worth upping the random checks. The main thing you have to watch in this situation is that with all of these changes, we could get a bit more narky and agitated - so you just have to watch that there's not any bullying going on.
"Violent games and that kind of thing are never really a good idea."
At a time when people could use some help managing their worries and fears, Ms Jenkins and Kirrili Lonergan had to postpone the launch of their final book in a five-part series about a Little Anxious Creature - a LAC - called Loppy. Written by Ms Jenkins and illustrated by Ms Lonergan, the early intervention series offers young children simple ways to manage their anxiety and help them cope with change and loss. And right now, Ms Jenkins said, children and teenagers - but also adults - were dealing with loss and adjustment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For most children, school was being delivered online. Sports they played, or watched, have been postponed or cancelled. And their social interactions were now limited to phone calls, Facetime, social media and Zoom meetings.
"It is a real adjustment - it is almost like a big loss for them," Ms Jenkins said.
"The world as we know it - whether that's watching sport, playing sport, training, meeting up with our friends to hang out - has changed. We are all dealing with adjustment, and that can come with some low mood, some anxiety and some loss.
"Even if they do another activity - it's still an adjustment - they are still getting their exercise in, but they are not necessarily getting that same joy they get through doing their favourite things, playing their favourite sports, or being with their friends.
"Developmentally, from Year 7 to Year 9, they look through the lenses of life as, 'Am I liked and do I belong? Where do I belong?' And that's where some teenagers will be floundering at the moment."
Ms Jenkins said it was a good time to remind children and teenagers that everyone is in the same boat.
"They have got their social media - which we have always warned them not to do so much, but now it is a way for them to keep connected and see they are still in their world," she said. "The main thing is, if you can, let them know you're around and acknowledge that this is a huge adjustment, that everything is a bit topsy-turvy at the moment. A bit out of whack. Even reference how you are feeling. Test out whether they are feeling anything major - even if it is a bit lost, and validate it for them. Acknowledge how difficult it is to find things to do that are interesting. Reinforce the efforts they are putting into their schooling. Suggest they do video calls with their friends. It is easy for some personalities to go into a bit of a slump.
"But help them focus on the positives. Gear their attention to basic things to be grateful for. 'We've got a house, we have some food, toilet paper? A computer - we can still have contact with your friends'. It's very easy to cling to what we haven't got and what we're missing. Our brain's are actually hardwired to do that. Our brains are like velcro for negatives, and teflon for positives - so it takes a lot more effort to get the positive suggestions to stick."
Ms Jenkins said anxiety presented because our "emotion brain" thinks we are unsafe based on created "thought stories" about unknowns and uncertainties, and it activated our "protection system" .
"Remember that anxious worries live in a world that is in the future and therefore, created," she said. "To manage anxiety, come back to the present world. Uncertainty is the perfect meal for anxiety and right now in the current conditions we live in, uncertainty dominates."
Ms Jenkins explains what anxiety is and what can help.
What is our emotion brain?
"Its only concern is to protect us. It works 24/7 to take in all the data from what it hears, sees, tastes, smells, touches, thinks and feels, to assess if we are safe or unsafe. Our emotion brain is hearing some scary stuff right now. It's hearing that a deadly virus is spreading and people are dying daily and that elders, friends and sick relatives are extremely vulnerable to catching it. It's hearing that the entire world as we know it has closed down and locked down. What is our emotion brain hearing? It is hearing that we are unsafe.
"Then the action starts. It begins to oil the cogs and activate our protection system - an inbuilt system of brain structures, neuro-chemicals and hormones. It puts our body into the best position to survive and enables us to fight, flee or freeze in the face of danger."
"Our survival system thinks it is helping us to survive against a real life-threatening danger (which is great, and definitely needed). However, our emotion brain unfortunately does not have the ability to tell the difference between a real life threatening danger or thinking about a real life threatening danger. So, when we think, 'I'm going to catch coronavirus and die', our emotion brain thinks we have coronavirus and are dying, and will respond accordingly and activate our protection system. This is anxiety - responding to a thought story as if it is a real thing."
Our body is protecting us
"Our heart may beat faster - because to fight or flee our blood actually needs to rapidly get to our arms and legs and the only way is through our heart, and our tummy may feel upset - because our 'protection system' overrides our 'digestive system'. Most physical symptoms of anxiety can be linked to a 'survival' reason."
Time to pause and tune in
"We won't know all of the above until we: stop, pause and remember, 'I'm feeling this way because my emotion brain thinks I am unsafe and its just doing its job to protect me'. The best skill here is awareness of when we are feeling anxious, nervous and/or stressed. The most pertinent question here is, 'Do I need my body to physically protect me right now?'. Then we can ask ourselves, 'right here, right now, am I physically unsafe?'. The answer is usually and realistically 'No. I am home, safe.' To manage anxiety, we need to get to this level - actually talking to and teaching our emotion brain that we are safe."
We are all the same
"The emotion brain protection system is happening right now in the bodies of adults, adolescents and younger children. We are all the same. Understanding this similarity is the golden tool, because it guides us on how to best approach anxiety and the strategies we choose to use."
Uncertainty is the new normal
"When it comes to our children, their current coronavirus world is very different to what they know as normal. Most are no longer at school, or if they are at school, it is extremely different - their friends aren't there and how they play and learn has changed. Not being able to go to normal after school activities including some therapy activities is also noticed and felt. Our HSC students are already faced with a stressful journey and now they have metaphorical detours steering them down different pathways to their studies, assessments and possibly their exams. For a lot of kids, 'different' equals 'change' and change equals 'unknown and uncertain'. How does their emotion brain assess uncertainty? That's right - unsafe."
Helping our kids
"So, what do we need to do? We need to guide our attention to what we do know. We know that right here and right now, we are safe and that right now, we are together and we are doing 'this'.
"For adults, the created stories can pack a big punch. For example, 'What if I can't meet my payments? What if I can't feed my kids?'. Those thoughts can plunge us into a created world of catastrophe. The word to focus on here is created. Anxious worries live in the future world that is created. Our thoughts have heaps of practice in travelling there and much less practice at being in the present. Practicing is exactly what we need.
- Understand that anxiety presents itself because our emotion brain thinks we are unsafe. It activates our protection system and this is what we feel when we are anxious.
- Remember that anxious worries live in a world that is in the future and therefore, created.
- Come back to the present world - right here and right now I know...
- Notice what you can see, hear, taste, smell, feel right here right now; notice how your belly and chest move as you breathe in and out.
What to practice?
1. I am aware I am anxious
2. I am safe
3. Right here, right now, I know...
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