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Strained family relationships make the pandemic harder to bear

Chuying Huo/YJI

Some people are enjoying the extra time with their families as governments worldwide implement lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but trouble is brewing for others. 

While staying at home lessens the risk of being infected, many are left vulnerable to mental and physical problems from unhealthy or strained family relationships.

As part of a global project on mental health in the time of covid-19, Youth Journalism International reporters asked mental health professionals about how young people can deal with strained family relationships during the pandemic.

Efforts to safeguard young people from these toxic environments are critical, according to Sara Sirati, a mental health counselor in South Wales in the United Kingdom.

Sirati said that the line between physical and psychological problems can sometimes be blurred, but abuse is not always physical. 

“You can experience a great deal of bullying and abuse verbally, emotionally, and psychologically, so it is important that we feel safe and that we have someone we can talk to who can safeguard us,” Sirati said. “I think that is the number one priority.”

It is important that people have access to resources and professionals who can provide a safety net in unsafe environments, experts said. It is important to communicate with friends and trusted adults, contact hotlines or call the police in emergency situations.

“There’s a hand signal that has been started for women and children to signal to someone online that they aren’t safe and for the person they are talking with virtually to call the police,” said Helen Butlin, a psychotherapist in Ontario, Canada.

The hand signal is formed by creating a fist with your fingers folded over your thumb like a salute to the screen. It can be used if someone is in a highly unsafe environment where they are unable to call the police.

Youth – who may also be faced with new pressures from their families as they are stuck with the same people for long periods of time – can become more rebellious as they try to cope with the demands.

At this age it is normal for teens to be rebellious with their families. Right now, this rebellious behavior is exacerbated,” said Paulina Véjar, a school psychologist in Quito, Ecuador. “Teens are no longer just students, or members of the group of friends, but family members, and they now have to, whether they want to or not, participate within their families.”

Véjar said it is normal for young people to go against the rules and form their own personalities.

But the pandemic is a challenge for everyone, Véjar said, so both sides have to compromise.

Peri Gilbert-Reed, a counselor who works with children and adolescents in Shreveport, Louisiana, said parents are really challenged by power struggles now, but need to take things step by step to model behavior for their children.

While some families are more vulnerable and have more challenges than others, some are viewing the lockdown as an opportunity, and making the best of the situation.

A Turkish family took its pandemic wedding celebration, and folk dance, out into the parking lot of their apartment building in Istanbul. (Bilge Nur Güven/YJI)

“It is beautiful to see families playing together. There is another level of having a relationship with your kid. Experiencing childhood again and enjoying each other. There is power in stillness,” said Gilbert-Reed.

 “Having some quality family time is the best thing right now,” said Kate Turner, a counselor in Spring, Texas.

Michelle Collins, a certified clinical trauma counsel in Texas, said boundaries within the home are important. If things are getting heated, she said, it’s time to get up and take a walk. Setting limits can reduce anxiety, according to Collins, and help you take care of yourself.

Sirati said that keeping a diary and recording stress levels is a good strategy.

“Quite often, I tell people to keep a diary, keeping a record of how they are feeling throughout the day,” Sirati said.

The professionals also said it is important for people to check in on one another and make sure family and friends have someone to talk to. That way, problems may be addressed before they escalate.

Laura Reed, a counselor at Lincoln College in England, said she keeps regular contact with her students.

“I check in with them, focusing and refocusing them emotionally, putting stuff in such as relaxation and ways to manage their emotions, and identifying any complications in their relationship before we reach crisis,” Reed said.

This story was reported by Aileen Cevallos in Quito, Ecuador; Nisha Chandar-Nair in Lincoln, England; Chuying Huo in Ontario, Canada;  Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas and Nivetha Nandakumar in Cardiff, Wales.  It was written by Lyat Melese in Alexandria, Virginia and Purnima Priyadarsini in Bhubaneswar, India. Bilge Nur Güven in Istanbul made the wedding photo. Huo created the cover illustration.

Covid Mood is a global project by Youth Journalism International examining how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 impacted mental health among the world’s young people. Its 17 news stories and accompanying photos and illustrations are by 21 students from a dozen nations on six continents. Together, they interviewed 56 teenagers and young adults in 18 countries and mental health professionals from five different nations. All Covid Mood stories are accessible here.

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