Lockdown has seen young people fall victim to family violence and challenges within families, an expert in developmental psychology has said. Dr Emily Berger, a senior lecturer at Monash University in Melbourne, said the pandemic and lockdown has created a sense of uncertainty.
“Whenever there’s an experience of uncertainty, that can increase our experience of stress and anxiety because we’re not sure what’s going to happen,” she said. “But it’s also taken away protective factors [and] taken away routines that we rely on, particularly for young people.”
The pandemic has also created “an atmosphere and a catalyst for other potentially traumatic experiences”, such as family violence, Dr Berger said. This family violence can be direct, where young people are victims of the violence, or it can be indirect.
“It can be that they’re stepping in to protect the victim parent or stepping in to protect and comfort younger siblings or siblings,” she said. “Or it could be that they’re hearing the violence that’s occurring between their parents, so they’re hearing that in the house.”
Dr Berger said that family violence is considered an adverse childhood experience.
“Adverse childhood experiences have clear impacts on the psychological health of children at the time,” she said. “But also can have impacts ongoing as well, so things such as anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder as well.”
Other factors in the home can also affect young people, according to Dr Berger.
“[Lockdown has] also increased disadvantage for families, financial insecurity for families, that’s increased stress and pressure for parents,” she said. “That can then have an impact on kids, so the mental health of parents can obviously have an impact on the mental health of children as well.”
A joint report by Mission Australia and Black Dog Institute found that the top issues of concern for young people were coping with stress, mental health and body image. Released in September, the report looks at responses from young people aged 15 to 19 years. There were 25,800 responses to the survey, which was conducted last year.
The report looked at sources that young people rely on when dealing with psychological distress compared to when they’re not.
“Young people with psychological distress were more likely to use mobile apps or go to social media for support,” the report said.
“Young people without psychological distress reported going to close personal connections for help, particularly parent/s or guardian/s, a relative/family friend and their brother/sister. Young people without psychological distress were also slightly more likely to go to a teacher or friend/s for support with important issues.”
However, most of these supports have been taken away because of the lockdown, Dr Berger said.
In particular, by not being able to attend school in person, they’ve lost the ability to escape from stresses at home. “Schools would quite often provide a break for kids from stresses at home,” she said. “Young people have lost that break and that buffer away from stresses at home with their parents or otherwise.”
To better look after themselves during lockdown, Dr Berger advises that they begin by recognising that the protective factors that they used to have easy access to are now gone, including attending school, exercising every day and social interactions with peers.
“If they can create that within their daily routine to help to protect them against the negative psychological impacts of Covid then that’s really important,” Dr Berger said.
Parents and carers should watch for any signs of withdrawal from young people.
“If parents and teachers are noticing that young people are not indulging in the activities that they used to enjoy, and have withdrawn from the interactions that they used to engage with, then that’s probably a sign that the young person isn’t coping,” she said.
To support young people, parents and carers can start by acknowledging that young people are also experiencing stress and uncertainty from the pandemic. “Be curious and ask young people about their thoughts and their feelings about what’s happening in relation to the pandemic,” Dr Berger said.
“Quite often, young people might exaggerate or have lost hope for the future or they might exaggerate how bad things are for them. So, we need to understand what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling and be able to just be a sounding board to what their experience is from the pandemic.”