What is pandemic fatigue and are teenagers affected the most?

Updated: Apr 27

Pandemic fatigue is defined by WHO as a “demotivation to follow recommended

protective behaviours, emerging gradually over time and affected by several emotions, experiences and perceptions”. Surely, every one of us can identify with this description since it is an expected and natural response to a prolonged public health crisis with all the associated restrictions in our lives. However, data increasingly points towards teenagers being one of the most affected groups of people by this phenomenon.

Understanding the Teen Brain

Everyone knows adolescence is synonymous with seeking independence and their own identity, challenging boundaries, looking for new experiences and feeling emotions more intensely. Besides, parents are no longer their reference models, as they look towards peer groups for most influence, which leads to a huge interest to have a wide and exciting social life.

Although we sometimes see adolescence as the transition between being a child and an adult, their brain is not fully developed, and it will not be until 25 or so. The “upstairs brain”, formally called the prefrontal cortex, is the part of the brain in charge of thinking rationally, making decisions with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. However, this part of the brain is still immature at this age, therefore teenagers tend to process information with the “downstairs brain”, the emotional part formed by the limbic system, which is more active than in children and adults.

Also, seeking instant gratification is another highlight at this age, where the advantages outweigh the negative consequences, even when there are real risks. Hence, impulsive behaviours based on short-term desires will sound familiar for everyone who has past through adolescence.

Having said that, maybe we can understand better why having teenagers confined to their homes 24/7 with parental attention, plus restrictions in their practice of social life have caused them a higher level of irritation and anger, sadness and withdrawal, besides the demotivation to follow the protective guidance.

Does it mean we need to excuse every rude answer, impulsive action or rule-breaking? Absolutely not. Behaviour can’t be explained without its context and communication is a bidirectional influence. Parents, teachers and adults involved in the upbringing of teens, are key in this process. We must guide them to use their upstairs brain to integrate their experiences with the whole brain and work on negotiation for alternatives. Boundaries and affection are protective factors that make them feel safe, although they may show us they do not need them.

What can we do as adults?

- Communication. Start talking about how you feel and how you are coping with it. That will help them to open to talk about themselves and find out their needs and worries.

- Show understanding and normalise those emotions. Make them feel they are not alone with those feelings and thoughts.

- Search together resources of resilience. Once you have engaged, you can start searching for solutions to make feel the whole family better in these circumstances.

- Find common interests and activities but respect their own space as well. It will be positive to create positive moments to balance the potential arguments and tension, however, they will appreciate some time on their own as well.

- Finally, use humour! It’s been a tough year, so it’s not necessary to have an intense and serious talk every day. Sense of humour is always a good tool.

Signs of trouble

Even though we’ve said it's normal for teens to be down or being an emotional rollercoaster (as all of us are feeling in that kind of way because of the pandemic anyway) we need to monitor the intensity, lasting and frequency of these symptoms.

We can’t focus just on being sad or feeling discouraged. Teenagers can show mental health issues in another way such as headaches or insomnia. Parents need to be alert to an increasing in irritability, anxiety, bad mood and negatives thoughts. We know it is not easy as all of these symptoms can match with the actual features of being a teenager. However, another cause for concern could be a lack of energy and initiative to start activities which they normally enjoy.

If you identify a teen next to you – son, daughter, friend, related…- with this description, do not hesitate to be in touch. We can help them understand their feeling better by involving the whole family in the process.

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