Perhaps it is because two of my daughters are part of the generation sadly renamed "the Covid Generation," made up of adolescents and pre-adolescents, that I am particularly sensitive to the discomfort that young people are experiencing at this time. Certainly there are and have been situations similar or worse than this. Consider those who have grown up in war and poverty. However, in the Western world, in which young people had become accustomed to a life of ease and security – perhaps excessively – the "Covid Generation" is becoming a crisis within a crisis.
It's "only" been a year since the start of the pandemic, in which kids have experienced drastic deprivations that have given them feeling like they are losing their best years without having lived them. Then comes the anxiety about the future, leaving us stuck asking the question: “Will this ever end?”
The Spectrum of Depression
Several recent studies, including one presented in PNAS ( Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), examine the effect of the pandemic on the lifestyles and well-being of young people and have shown an increase in depressive symptoms in adolescents and pre-adolescents. Psychological frailty and self-harm increased, along with eating disorders and the development of addictions; additionally, sleep problems, anxiety, and irritability also increased.
The disruption of routine has left many feeling unstable. Kept from being able to see their peers and from going to school – an essential part of building positive relationships – boys have been spending more time in front of screens chatting, playing video games, or doing nothing at all. Many boys do not even go outside for an hour during the day; they are lazy – emptied of all motivation. For girls, the desire to be “put together” and update their wardrobe has diminished. They think, "Who sees me anyway”?
At first, following the adrenaline rush generated by the novelty of the pandemic, they did workouts in the living room, following a trainer on YouTube. It was fun, too! But now, after a year, even this has lost its sense of novelty, and they’ve given up. This is why depression increases, which in most cases is hidden. These kids try to cover it up, so as not to make their parents worry or perhaps because they feel ashamed.
Where young people once had routine, they now experience melancholy, fear, and insecurity. They lack daily routine and little habits, and of course they’re aware of this! It’s their life! But we adults often underestimate them or consider certain things to be juvenile. So it's time to ask ourselves if we adults fully understand our children. Are we carefully observing them? Are we really trying to be a part of their inner world? Maybe we aren’t because we don't have the courage; after all, their fears are ours, too.
The Family as a Resource: Six Simple Suggestions from Unicef
Parents play a fundamental role in creating a safe space for relationships in which there is freedom to make mistakes and expose oneself with one's own fragilities and anxieties. Parents should listen, understand, and welcome the pain of their children, stimulating acceptance. Parents are the best role models, and the home is the best place to learn the skill of adaptation. It's time to become strong fathers and mothers who teach their kids how to deal with crises by example. As adults, let’s first stop complaining and rediscover the meaning of deprivation. Let's teach our children that the absence of something makes us appreciate its value even more when it returns and pushes us to be creative in finding new resources and new values. Mature growth does not occur in a stifled world. Rather than removing roadblocks for our children, we must be present for them when they fall and show them how to get back up. We know that a path toward growth is never linear and pain-free.
Creative Courage, Not Victimhood
Let's also strive to present positive models of creativity, such as the initiative of an Italian teacher who invited her students to share how they got on through the pandemic and collected their experiences in a book. There’s also the prime example of so many young people who have dedicated themselves to creative activities, such as forming a virtual music band, improvising being a director of short films, or dedicating themselves to creating a new clothing brand.
Without belittling the seriousness of the increase in cases of youth depression, but instead monitoring them more carefully and promptly stepping in when the first sign pops up, let’s be careful to avoid victimizing an entire generation. Let’s show them that we can overcome difficulties by facing them, by turning a critical moment into an opportunity, by taking advantage of what we have, and by not regretting what we no longer have. First and foremost, let's tell them that they are showing the greatest form of love by making sacrifices for the good of the community, for the good of others. They are pushed into a Copernican revolution in a world that had put the "I" at the center. We should explain to young people a new way of looking at things: the other person – who before was often a burden – is now my salvation, since we do good for ourselves by doing good for the other. Therefore, the restrictions that are imposed on me do not limit my freedom, but show its maximum expression, since freedom is always aimed at the good.