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June 25, 2021 Friday 11:34:34 AM IST

Teenager Seeks Solace in Boyfriend

Parent Interventions

Teenage years are filled with physical, emotional, and cognitive changes. There are also hormonal shifts, more independence and responsibility, and peer challenges. It is therefore not surprising that teens have been more susceptible to declines in psychological health since the onset of the pandemic. Adolescents are experiencing acute and chronic stress because of parental anxiety, disruption of daily routines, increased family violence, and home confinement with no access to peers, teachers, or physical activity. But the struggles and losses of the past year will likely continue to affect families for some time to come. The adolescents’ feeling depressed, hopeless, anxious, and angry may be signs they may benefit from more support during this difficult time. Keep in mind that adolescents and young adults may try to hide their struggles because of fear, shame, or a sense of responsibility to avoid burdening others.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has identified the global burden of mental health diseases among adolescents to affect 10–20% of the population and half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. Depression has been identified as the single largest cause of disease burden among the younger population. What has made the global pandemic so harmful to mental health is the combination of issues it has created. Social isolation from early on during the pandemic, financial instability, and job loss, remote schooling, and fear related to health concerns all have proven negative impacts on adolescents’ state of mind. Taken individually—not to mention together—each of these elements has been shown to cause anxiety, depression, and distress.

Merrin’s Story

The following is the story of a teenager whose reckless attempt to get emotional support from her special friend, landed her in deep trouble. Merrin (17) preparing for her Class XII board exam was brought for counseling. From her sullen face, it was obvious that Merrin was brought in with parental pressure. Her parents said Merrin was a studious girl until recently. Of late, she shows the least interest in studies, quite irritable and fighting with her younger sister, and is seen often as withdrawn from family members.

Merrin has been indiscriminate in choosing friends, especially boyfriends. She is too attached to a boy whom the family considers a loser, a dropout (at 12th Std) and a liability. Merrin is keeping an emotional distance from the family members and secretly chats (and talks) for long times with this friend. Merrin does not have friends. Recently she secretly made arrangements with her friend to visit her at home while her parents were out on some errands. It was grandma who discovered the boy inside the house and was rudely shocked. The entire family was up in arms against the erratic behavior of Merrin and the boy has been taken to task.

Parental Quarrels

Merrin gave an entirely different picture of the story. The teenager unfolded the agonies of her life, how she had suffered from her parents, how they fought each other from early childhood on, how they were disinterested in her, etc. Eventually, Merrin became a loner, an introvert, and withdrawn from social life and activities. According to her, she had been undergoing quarantine even before the outbreak of Covid-19! Merrin felt all along with numbness, emotionally cut-off, an unwanted feeling, etc. at home. So, Merrin felt as if she was a stranger even in her own house. It is during the lockdown periods that she suffered the most. Merrin felt a sense of suffocation, panic, deep loneliness, despair, and meaninglessness. Since she didn’t have many friends to turn to, she depended solely on her boyfriend for consolation and emotional support. It was in one of those panic attacks that she desperately called for her friend’s help. Merrin never imagined, she would end up in such a family imbroglio.

Long-Term Resolutions

As already mentioned, adolescents are undergoing great stress, fear, despair, etc. In Merrin’s case, this has been aggravated by parental conflict and violence at home. Thus, she had to take the brunt of negative emotions such as insecurity, unwanted feeling, low self-esteem and also felt rejected by both parents (since both were emotionally unavailable). Studies show that this population of children/adolescents appears to have attachment issues in their relationships in the long term.

Merrin has already started insulating from her family of origin, and it might extend to her other relationships as well. These children who might go through emotional and relational upheaval from time to time, need significant support. Unfortunately, in times of pandemic, this special attention and care are missing and it leads to severe negative consequences in the formation of one’s personality and relationships. As for Merrin and her family, the parents have to do their homework, about their relational conflict, affective deficit, etc.  Merrin has to do her part in reconstructing her personality, reach a rapprochement with her own conflicting emotional undercurrents.

Stress Symptoms

Signs of stress and mental health, challenges are not the same for every child or teen, but there are some common symptoms:

• Changes in mood that is not usual for your child, such as ongoing irritability, feelings of hopelessness or rage, and frequent conflicts with friends and family.

• ·Changes in behavior, such as stepping back from personal relationships. If your ordinarily outgoing teen shows little interest in texting or video chatting with their friends, for example, this might be cause for concern.

• A loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. Did your music-loving child suddenly stop wanting to practice guitar, for example? Did your aspiring chef lose all interest in cooking and baking?

• A hard time falling or staying asleep, or starting to sleep all the time.

• Changes in appetite, weight or eating patterns, such as never being hungry or eating all the time.

• Problems with memory, thinking, or concentration.

• Less interest in schoolwork and a drop in academic effort.

• Changes in appearance, such as lack of basic personal hygiene (within reason, since many are doing slightly less grooming during this time at home).

• An increase in risky or reckless behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol.

• Thoughts about death or suicide, or talking about it.

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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