Ireland and the UK have not taken exactly the same courses during the pandemic, but there have been similarities in each country’s adaptation to Covid 19. One of these has been the closure of schools during the most intense lockdowns. It is for this reason that a report released last month by a UK agency, tracking students’ ability to self-regulate at school from the pre-pandemic era to December 2021, could offer interesting parallels that could help us to understand the experiences of Irish students understand to.
The report focuses primarily on the experiences of 13-18 year olds, so it fits in well with our own secondary school-aged teenagers. The agency that conducted the study offers schools a commercial service to help identify children and young people who are struggling emotionally in those schools before these emotional difficulties can overwhelm the student.
This gave them a database of over 15,000 students to include in the study. They found that students in general are now 25 percent less able to self-regulate in school than they were before the pandemic. This means that students have more trouble adapting and adjusting their own emotional responses to social and emotional interactions with peers and teachers at school. The study found that self-regulation outside of school did not change.
A simple way to understand self-regulation is to think about your own responses to different stresses. When you get upset about something, what happens to you? Could you lose the plot and get very angry? Could you keep quiet and withdraw from the situation? We can think of it as the emotional equivalent of turning the dial up and expressing an emotion in an unfiltered way, or perhaps turning it down and not expressing an emotion, perhaps damming it up.
In most situations, it’s easier to tell if someone is having trouble self-regulating when their feelings are “externalized,” which often means we can see it in their behavior (like aggressive yelling). When the feeling is “internal” and not outwardly displayed, it can be harder to recognize that someone is struggling with their feelings.
The study found that girls in their sample have greater difficulty self-regulating than boys, and despite the decline in self-regulation, there is generally no change in the level of apparent disruptive behavior among students. While some see the lack of such “agout” behavior as an indicator that the pandemic has not really impacted children and young people at school, the report’s author concludes that it is more likely that the negative impact on the emotional Adolescent well-being is only hidden and internalized.
Not surprisingly, when teens try to internalize their feelings, it doesn’t mean the feelings are gone, it just means the feelings are floating around inside them and the teen needs to use more internal control to try to let them out to stop the feelings. Common methods they do include putting a brave face on things, projecting apparent coping while often being unwilling or unable to ask for help. Increased perfectionism and anxiety can also be a sign of internalized control efforts. Sometimes teenagers turn to internalized, controlled, self-soothing behaviors such as controlled eating, self-harm, or compulsive behaviors.
This report was evidence that supported many of my own anecdotal experiences with teenagers in my clinical practice. As the pandemic has receded and schools have become more like they used to be, there is an assumption, certainly among many parents, that students are willing and able to just go back to school the way they were. But I don’t think that’s the case. There are many students who have been “switched off” during lockdown and are really struggling to get “switched back on” socially, emotionally and academically.
When schools were reopening after one of the lockdowns, I can remember writing an article for that newspaper arguing that we may need to pay more attention to students’ emotional well-being than to scholastic losses, which they may have suffered because they did not go to school. This report suggests that this is still very much the case for students.
There is always a danger that we pathologize common human suffering and our emotional response to it. I’ve argued before that there might be a bias in diagnosing adolescents with “mental health problems,” almost as a way of over-dividing or catastrophizing ordinary human experiences.
But the pandemic was no ordinary human experience, and so we must remain vigilant about the myriad of complex ways in which teenagers will have attempted to cope with and respond to the changes inflicted on them. This is the only way we can ensure that we can support them effectively.
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/parenting/our-teenagers-may-be-covering-up-the-real-emotional-impact-of-the-pandemic-41476311.html Our teens may be covering up the true emotional impact of the pandemic