Life at a distance
F A M I L I F E – Sleep problems, eating disorders, anxiety and depression in children and adolescents have increased significantly recently. We have all been experiencing an exceptional situation since the outbreak of the coronavirus – how does that really affect us?
M L M – The state of mind means enormous tension. Many have the feeling of living under a glass dome that deprives us of vitality and energy. The salutogenic approach describes what keeps people healthy: they understand the world that surrounds them. They experience themselves as self-effective. They can design what makes sense to them. Health is more than the absence of illness. If we apply that to the Corona situation, we see: All principles have been violated. There is a lot we do not understand, we cannot shape it as usual, and meaning has been lost for many. All of this causes an increase in stress hormones, weakens the immune system, and makes you susceptible to disorders of wellbeing. Only research in 15 years will be able to show the consequences of what this causes in the organism.
How does the situation affect children?
M L M – As the youngest representatives of our species, children react particularly to this. As a 60-year-old, I was long past socialisation. My tank of social experiences is filled with memories, encounters, hugs and sensations. Children are now constantly receiving anti-social impulses: Don’t do that, don’t play with them, don’t grasp them – for a four-year-old the pandemic has already lasted a quarter of their life. This contradicts his innate needs as a representative of the species Homo sapiens, which is actually radically social. We were originally located in the middle of the food chain and could only work our way up to the top through community.
What do these experiences mean for the further life of the child?
M L M – A toddler strives for lively encounters and haptic experiences. The neurobiological program could also be overwritten by the antisocial character that everyone else could endanger you. The new generation of adults could show completely different behaviour, completely different values and assessments – only strongly committed to usefulness and rationality.
How can you counteract this?
M L M – With the youngest, it has never been more important to give the child undivided attention. Since children cannot live out haptic experiences to the same extent, physical contact is an essential aspect. Self-efficacy is also important: tinkering with creative materials, designing collages from magazines and houses made of cardboard. My children still talk about a picture they created together 20 years ago. The positive thing about the crisis is that the family was thrown back on itself – but not in the Biedermeier sense with hostility towards the outside, but in the sense that we deal well with each other and can give each other a lot.
How stressed are teenagers?
M L M – It is a great challenge for them, they have been withdrawn from school the longest. Autonomy, self-worth, identity, self-managed and self-negotiated encounters, independence from parental home – all of this has suffered massive losses. For young people, it’s about trying things out, experiencing rank and group dynamics, and dealing with power and powerlessness. This must be trained in the peer group so that the age cohort knows how to interact as adults. Cooperation and social skills are right at the top, young people are robbed of this training platform.
You are a co-author of the study “Young Austrians 2021” – What were your findings?
M L M – A third of young people are demotivated and think they have poor prospects. As early as January of this year, 34 percent of those surveyed said: “I don’t believe in my future.” That can be a boomerang. With such a mindset, stumbling blocks can be seen as confirmation. Teenagers give up on their dreams and feel they are not needed.
How can parents deal with this?
M L M – First, it must be said: Everyone has limits, parents are often expected to be the jack of all trades. When flying on a plane it is not for nothing that in the event of cabin pressure loss, first pull the oxygen mask towards yourself and only after help children and fellow passengers. That means; mental hygiene. It’s about knowing what you need yourself. About creating personal space – be it just walking around the block or talking to friends on the phone. Of course, it is important to preserve structures and rituals for the family. Loss of structure and culture causes a weakening of the resilience. We must encourage children and young people. Humans are endowed with two important skills: they are social, and they are creative.
What do teenagers need?
M L M – Many have already withdrawn in resignation. This is where social phobias and body image disorders occur. Particularly with teenagers it is imperative to stay in dialogue, but also to commandeer the leading responsibility. For example: We both eat together as a family and take the time to exchange and discuss ideas. However, during lockdown adults were allowed to have one friend that could visit – this should have also applied to teenagers. They especially need someone they trust, a buddy.
How do you feel about the future?
M L M – I think we experience Corona as a fire accelerator of a process that has the potential to either drive civilization against the wall or to force it onto itself in self-reflection and drive the development of social and creative potential. My generation of post-war parents is very materialistic: It was important to create something. That’s the frame of mind I was brought up in. Today’s youth have emancipated themselves from this. They don’t necessarily need a car, just access to one. They value ethically produced clothing more and more. A rethinking begins. I could imagine that with the experience of the crisis and the total restriction, the course will be changed a few degrees in the direction of more moderation and ecological thinking.
Martina Leibovici-Mühlberger studied medicine, sociology and human biology, is a gynaecologist and psychotherapist. The mother of four runs a training, research and consulting company with a focus on children, youth and families (fitforkids.at). She writes books, including “Der Tyrannen- Kindererziehungsplan” and “Startklar – Departure into the world after Covid-19” and repeatedly offers free webinars for parents (https://fitforlife.at).
Original German translated to English by Familux.