At the start of the year, I wrote a blog inspired by Botticelli’s’ stunning fifteenth century artwork, Primavera which not only acts as an allegory for Spring but represents the beauty, innovation, and complexity of a new era. I reflected on the way The Black Death radically disrupted society with many historians suggesting that the social, political, economic, cultural, and religious upheaval created by The Plague contributed to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history. So perhaps it can be suggested that light has the capacity to emerge from the darkest of places; Spring will always follow Winter.
Over the past two years countless articles have speculated about the growth and positive change that could emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Without minimising the difficulty, destruction and death that has been caused globally, perhaps there is every chance that we could step in to our own Primavera. Our own Springtime… but we are not there yet.
While the Renaissance is now known as The Golden Age not everyone experienced the richness, colour and vitality of the time. Many peoples’ lives remained challenging, and the impacts of The Plague could be felt for decades to come. Similarly, the impacts of COVID-19 are still being experienced today and will continue to be for a very long time. A recent media headline questioned, “Why did Covid disappear from our collective consciousness so quickly?” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/03/why-did-covid-disappear-from-our-collective-consciousness-so-quickly) While I understand the desire to delete the disturbance of COVID-19 from our narratives we cannot so easily delete it from the lives of our young people.
For teenagers, the struggles of COVID-19 will continue to endure well into the future and at NGS we take our role as educators very seriously. We know that “adolescence is characterised by an increased desire for independence, autonomy, and reliance on peer connections for emotional support and social development … This coupled with a heightened sensitivity to stress exposure associated with pubertal development suggests that the pandemic, along with the measures that have been taken to contain its transmission, have had a significant negative impact on the wellbeing of our young people.”
A further headline that grabbed my attention last week read, “Teenage girls’ drinking ‘bucking the trend’ and not in a good way.”(https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/teenage-girls-drinking-bucking-the-trend-and-not-in-a-good-way-20220531-p5aq0e.html) The assertion that COVID-19 has impacted girls and boys in different ways was something that we always assumed but is now being supported in data. A research paper that came out of Iceland in August 2021, “examined gender differences across broad indicators of adolescent wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic and explored potential explanations for these differences.” According to the findings,
Although both boys and girls appeared affected, girls reported a greater negative impact across all the broad indicators of wellbeing and behavioral change during COVID-19 than boys, and their depressive symptoms were above and beyond the expected nationwide scores (t(1514) = 4.80, p < .001, Cohen's d = 0.315). Higher depressive symptoms were associated with increased passive social media use and decreased connecting with family members via telephone or social media among girls, and decreased sleeping and increased online gaming alone among boys. Concern about others contracting COVID-19, changes in daily and school routines, and not seeing friends in person were among the primary contributors to poor mental health identified by youth, particularly girls. https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jcv2.12027
If we accept that the purpose of adolescence is to shape identity, forge connections, stretch boundaries, make mistakes, and learn how to flourish we must also accept that this journey for adolescents has been deeply impacted by COVID-19 and for many that impact is a negative one. Along with the research that is emerging globally, Australian studies are also finding that there are gender differences when it comes to coping with the pandemic. A University of Sydney study reveals that rates of drinking and poor sleep are higher among girls with depression, anxiety, and self-harm as co-morbidities. It is not surprising that young people experienced struggles and felt alone during the pandemic. As humans we are all hard-wired to connect, and relationships are at the heart of our subjective and collective wellbeing. Even though we have returned to so many of our pre-COVID routines, for many the poor coping mechanisms remain. So, what can we do to support our young people?
It is suggested that families focus on the Big Six health behaviours – eating, drinking, smoking, exercise, screen use and sleep… but as adults we must start with ourselves. Young people look to the trusted adults in their lives to co-regulate their emotions. They borrow, share, and mirror our emotions … so if our coping mechanisms and overall wellbeing are not optimal then that is what we are passing on to the young people all around us. Self-care is imperative and has a significant ripple effect. Checking in with teenagers and creating routines is also vital as is finding time for joy in our lives. The notion of setting aside time for joy may seem silly, but it is so important – just as important and nourishing as setting aside time for homework or dinner.
Of course, sometimes we all need support and at NGS we are always here. We are very fortunate to have a language for wellbeing and many opportunities to check in with our students. Wellbeing literacy is the greatest lever we have to not only encourage our young people to adopt healthy coping strategies but to help them to harness their strengths and flourish. We know that language is our portal to meaning-making and if we do not have a word for it then it does not exist … so it is essential that we talk to our children and students about the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, really listen to their responses and make wellbeing visible. More than ever, we must place wellbeing at the heart of everything we do.
Along with the emerging research on the negative impacts of COVID-19 on adolescents is the data on the galvanising impact of living the highs and lows of the pandemic together. Indeed, it could be suggested that the very reason that we are getting through it is because we are all going through it together. Please continue to reach out anytime because we know that we are Stronger Together.
So, while we do not know what the future holds there is no doubt that it will continue to offer both dark and light, Winter and Spring. There will be moments to savour and moments to surrender. Perhaps that is one of the points of the Primavera—the allegory of Spring is that it must come after Winter.
Marnie Thomas - Head of Positive Education