Agnieszka Jucewicz talks to Beata Wójcik*, a psychotherapist for children and adolescents.
"They should get down to work instead of complaining", "They are spoiled, probably from an excess of games", "What do they know about suffering? This isn't war after all”. There are plenty of similar comments under almost every article about teens and children who are having a hard time during this pandemic.
It would seem that people who read such texts want to somehow broaden their perspective, but the authors of these comments probably don't. They know what they know.
Saying, "What do they know about suffering?" is completely incomprehensible to me. These children have not experienced a war, which is good, but that doesn't mean that they don't experience other kinds of suffering on a daily basis. And this cannot be compared.
Or maybe these people themselves, as teenagers and children, were not treated with kindness, so it's difficult for them to show sympathy now because they don't know how to show it?
It's easier for people who judge themselves and are self-demanding to treat others this way, but I wouldn't justify this, because these comments show that someone is stuck in their own beliefs and doesn't even want to reflect on them.
Luckily, I don't get such harsh opinions at work, although I do sometimes hear from parents, “He does nothing. He's become lazy”. Or "I do not know what's going on. Her life is easier staying at home all day. All she has to do is organise herself."
I admit that my blood pressure rises a bit when I hear things like this.
– Because I know what it looks like from the perspective of young people.
This spring I saw a lot of fear in them, but also mobilisation. We all had more of it then. We had to adapt to this situation, but we believed it was only temporary. While the pandemic continues, prospects are uncertain, any mobilisation has evaporated, and enormous fatigue has set in. But a lot of us adults have gone back to work, even if only for a few days a week – it always gives respite. On the other hand, children, teenagers and students have been living in isolation, separated from their peers since March, with a break for summer holidays and the beginning of the school year.
What are they saying?
"I don't feel like doing anything anymore", "I don't care anymore". They talk a lot about the feeling of emptiness, meaninglessness. Sometimes they say what they hear from adults, “My parents are right. I gave it all up. I will step up now. But why am I not able to? Why don't I have the strength?”.
I have the impression that, although at the beginning of the pandemic, teachers were more understanding because the situation was new for them, they are now expecting students to make up for the time lost in the spring. I often hear from my young patients that there's a lot of pressure on learning, that it is actually endless.
How are parents reacting to this?
It varies. Some are more cautious. But these are parents whose children have experienced problems before. However, many parents don't even understand what is happening to them. For example, they experience a lot of helplessness, discouragement, mood deterioration and say, "I don't know why this is the way it is at all." I admit that I am surprised. Because we have a pandemic, and a difficult political and social situation. It all has an impact. If an adult doesn't understand why they might feel this way, it probably won't occur to them that children are going through it too. And children want to understand what is happening in them. If no one helps them, no one talks to them, they are left alone with difficult feelings that they cannot name or contain.
And what might happen next?
You can try to get away from it – spur yourself into action, into intensive learning or playing, for instance. But difficult feelings can also be replaced by emptiness. "I don't feel anything anymore" – is something I often hear. With a friend with whom we run a group of teenagers, we noticed that there has been a lot of silence in our meetings lately. Everyone is just staring at those squares on Zoom, but it's hard for them to speak. When we try to encourage them, they say, "We are already very tired".
What makes them so tired?
Dealing with tension, helplessness, lack of influence. But also with guilt.
“Time flies and I don't do anything. I will not be able to catch up with all this backlog. I am hopeless,” they say. They reproach themselves for having no reason to feel bad. "Why? All I have to do is get up in the morning. It's a little easier because you don't have to go to school." But the point is, it doesn't get any easier! And when we show them, “Look, you've been living in tension and stress for a long time. Stress in some doses is necessary because it mobilises, but if it is prolonged, it interferes with functioning,” they start to open up because they feel that someone is ready to listen to them. And it is not only about us, the therapists, but also about other participants in the group.
When you conduct classes with teenagers in a normal, stationary mode, someone will always be late or won't come at all. Everyone is on time now. They say that the group is very important to them, that they are waiting for it, that they need it.
Do they feel lonely?
Very much so.
Do they keep in touch with their friends outside of meeting them during remote lessons?
Some do, but less and less. However, organising a meeting requires effort – you have to call, make an appointment, come up with a safe formula. And if you stay stuck in apathy for so long, it's hard to pull yourself together. Not all parents allow their children to meet their peers.
You cannot go to your friend. The cinema or a café are out of the question. It is safe to go for a walk, but how long can you walk in winter?
But teenagers need more than time spent together. They need time away from their parents in general. I don't know if you've noticed how many young people learn in cafés. I used to wonder – how is this possible? You can't focus there at all. I realised that there they feel separated from their parents, and at the same time they are among people, which reduces their tension and the feeling of loneliness. And it's not the pandemic itself that makes them feel this way. At this stage, many people are simply experiencing loneliness. The pandemic only adds to that.
The teenager Marek Ścibior, who made the film "What do you see?", says, “A room 10 meters above the ground. A cage. The view from the window is still. We are waiting, I do not know how long. The past and the future have ceased to exist. Only the present matters. The desire to do anything diminished until it was completely gone.”
That's exactly what we're talking about now. This necessity to be here and now is not easy for many teenagers. Because it means being with yourself all the time, that is, someone who is insecure, undefined, often lost. This is very worrying. This is why many teenagers escape into sleep. They probably talk more about sleeping now than watching TV series or playing – that's how they unwound in the spring. Some people turn day into night.
They are active at night and sleep through the day?
Yes, exactly. I'm wondering what to make of this. One person told me that he prefers to function at night because then he can communicate with different people in the world who live in different time zones. I chat with Australians, Japanese people, Americans. A bit as if they wanted to say, "Maybe the world has shrunk, but not for me."
So do they regain a relative sense of control this way?
You can think about it that way. Because feeling out of control is very unpleasant.
Can escaping into sleep be dangerous?
Sleep itself is not the danger, of course, but if it becomes a routine, the only coping strategy, what does it actually mean? That there is no other way to experience difficulties but to disconnect from them? If we stop feeling, we won't be able to experience the world, to be in relationships. It is impossible to meet with yourself, with another person, without feeling anything.
I work with the Empowering Children Foundation, which runs a helpline. The consultants told me that there are a lot of suicide interventions at the moment. My patients say that they cut themselves. Some used to do it before the pandemic, but there are people who are doing it now for the first time. They've started using alcohol and drugs. It all shows how difficult it is to put up with what is happening inside them.
How are they perceiving the ban on leaving home on their own until 4 p.m.?
They actually don't talk about it. I don't know if it's because they've already given up, or if they no longer care about regulations. They say, "I don't follow it anymore, it changes so quickly." They don't care. Because so what if they somehow respond to it, if it won't help anyway. When I ask them, "The winter holidays have been moved, you can't actually go anywhere. How do you feel about that?" they reply, "We don't know. It's all become such a blur."
Aren't they looking forward to going back to school?
They don't seem to be looking forward to anything. Or they don't want to wait.
Indeed. But I do feel similar. As if I don't want to give myself too much hope.
Aren't they anticipating Christmas either?
They don't say anything about it. At least my patients don't. We usually have different plans in life – important family meetings, holidays, travels. These pleasures give some meaning to our lives, take us away from everyday life. We don't have that now. And even if we do, it can be taken from us at any moment, because suddenly it turns out that the borders are closed or that you can leave, but after returning you have to undergo quarantine that your parents cannot afford to do, and so on.
Teenagers no longer want to spend their energy building hope so as not to be disappointed later. Only feelings that are pushed aside in this way come back later in the form of apathy, a lack of energy, taking refuge in sleep.
The school closure was coupled with a message that children were responsible for the sudden resurgence of the pandemic. Did they feel guilty?
They spoke more about feelings of injustice. They couldn't understand: "Why are our schools being closed when adults can still go to work?" At our centre, we decided to run all groups for young people online, because some parents didn't allow their children to meet in-house, while the workshops for adults continued for some time in this mode. The teens were furious. They asked us, "Why can our parents meet, and we can't?" I didn't know what to tell them.
Do they feel hurt all the time or has it disappeared somewhere now?
It couldn't disappear. They talk less about it, but not because they are used to it, but because talking still requires some energy. And they no longer have it.
In the report of the Empowering Children Foundation, teenagers, when asked who was the greatest support for them during the pandemic, pointed to their mothers, then their friends. Their fathers took third place. Are they saying anything about this support from their friends?
Supporting each other is difficult, they are just now learning it. But maybe it's easier now, because they feel that their friends understand them better, because they are all in the same boat? I certainly see more openness in them to talk about the fact that they lack closeness, meetings and tenderness. They also say more often that they would like to have a girlfriend, a boyfriend.
How do those who are already in relationships cope?
Many couples break up because there is tension, and they don't know how to cope with it. Or they break up and get back together again – although that is quite common for this age group. Some people have no way of meeting because their parents don't let them, or they have nowhere to go because there's always someone at home. They feel robbed of their intimacy.
Recently, a friend took a touching photo of a couple of teenagers kissing under a blanket on the boulevard. They carved out a piece of intimate space for themselves.
Because kids, if they find motivation and strength, are very creative. They can deal with emotions constructively. Some of my patients write poetry now. I have a patient who made a great comic book about depression. A patient who started writing songs and is thinking about releasing a record. Some people still go to dance, music and drawing classes, which are fortunately still being held in person. I also have patients who are continuing to learn something – a new language, using a sewing machine. But usually these are people who have done this before. In the spring they said that they help more at home, that they cook with their parents, for instance. Now they are more likely to seek asylum in their rooms.
Are they saying anything about the support they get at home?
More about tension, that the atmosphere at their homes is nervous. More and more patients say that either one of the parents has lost their job or that there is a high risk that this will happen. It's a breeding ground for arguments. Also between siblings. I sometimes hear, “I don't talk to my brother/sister anymore. I can't listen to them. They're annoying.”
How can we as adults help children get through this time?
By being attentive, by being interested, by asking. Even if they don't say anything about it, it's worth reflecting that if it's difficult for us, it may also be difficult for them.
You can start like this, “You seem sad to me, as if you're tired. Am I right?” Maybe when we try to describe it somehow, the child will find themselves in all this. Describing is more opening than asking, "But what's wrong?". It closes, because nothing spectacular has to happen on the outside, but in the inner world something is happening all the time.
What if a child says it's really difficult for them?
We should try to describe this reality further. You can say that the situation is objectively difficult, that we imagine that they may feel very tired, that we know these feelings very well. When they open up a little, there is a good chance for a relief. Because it's not about finding a solution immediately or giving advice.
But maybe it's worth telling the child ways to get out of this state?
We can tell them how we manage ourselves. For instance, "I don't know about you, but it helps me, for example, if I talk about it." You can propose: "Or maybe you want to do something together?" But if the child refuses, it will also be OK. Providing your child with something tasty that they like is also an expression of concern. The child feels noticed then.
Some parents shut themselves off. And this is somehow understandable. They have to deal with the rush of their own feelings, with what is around them. Sometimes they need to isolate themselves, to not worry about anything anymore. I also have such needs...
– It is worth making an effort to talk about it. Don't hide tiredness and frustration, because sooner or later we will start blaming others for how we feel, including children.
When we are tired we need time for ourselves, we should say, "I'm tired. I need a moment to be alone to be able to do something together afterwards." A small child will probably still demand attention, but a slightly older one will learn that rest is also important, that creating a space for ourselves is important, that you don't always have to be available to everyone. You can also say to your child, "You know, I'm sad now." This way, we will show them that we are not afraid of such feelings, that it's possible to feel like this for a while and that the child is not responsible for our condition.
Psychotherapist Zofia Milska-Wrzosińska once told me that parents can "climb to the heights of their own humanity" for their children. It seems to me that this situation is requiring us to do so.
So that we don't give up our position as a parent. And keep our feelings under scrutiny. Because sometimes it's easier to get angry with a child, to tell them, "I'm tired of helping you with your lessons, I'm tired of having two jobs" than, for example, with a boss who doesn't respect our boundaries, or a partner who doesn't support us.
I also always encourage parents to learn to accept their helplessness. That they don't have to know the answer to everything. Because if they find room for doubt, it'll be much easier for them to understand their own child.
Are young people saying anything about their teachers, educators? Are they receiving support from them?
No, they don't, which doesn't mean they aren't getting it. They're just more concerned with the fact that they have so many exams and new tasks. Some of my patients have just been writing mock exams and they were very nervous whether they would manage, but also whether the Internet wouldn't fail them. They were afraid that they'd click something under stress and delete it. Sometimes they get angry with teachers that they don't accept arguments that they had a problem with their Internet connection, that they didn't finish something. But it's probably difficult for teachers as well now.
And it takes so little. Some teachers ask children how they are doing – that's a lot. In one of the schools I know, the pedagogue, together with the student council, prepared an online advent calendar. There is a different "chocolate" under each window, for example: “Talk to someone you like. Ask them how they're doing.”
A very nice idea. But I suspect that this willingness to reach out to these kids somehow happens more often in the younger grades. Adolescents rarely talk about such initiatives.
High school graduates live under a lot of stress. They are concerned whether they will make it in time with all the material, they feel that the lessons that are taking place are insufficient. They don't know exactly what the final exams will be like. In order to relieve tension, they carefully plan everything, each day is organised with a focus on learning. Sometimes I'm terrified of this. Because if they fail to implement the plan because they took too much on themselves or because they are too tired, the fear becomes even greater.
On the other hand, children in first grade are experiencing a huge loss. They've barely just managed to enter a new environment, meet new friends, and all this has been taken away from them. They are concerned that when they return, they will have to build these relationships again from scratch.
Are they trying to keep them going on the Internet?
They help each other in homework and tests – it's a fun way to communicate. Firstly, it makes them feel less lonely. Secondly, it removes the feeling that everyone is doing great, but not them. They learn to ask for help when they don't know something, and when they're good at something, they discover that helping someone can also be enjoyable.
You also work with young adults between the ages of 18 and 28. Many studies indicate that this will be the most disadvantaged group.
Similarly – they feel withdrawn, discouraged, fearful. Maybe older adolescents talk more about unmet needs in their relationships with their parents, but this is connected with the fact that they are about to leave home and that's difficult. It's easier to say that you didn't get something, that those parents failed, to lament this a little, than to see how hard it is to leave. The separation process is long. I have the impression that it is getting longer and longer.
Young people today have much higher expectations of themselves and of what this adulthood is supposed to be. The idea that when they choose a field of study, they cannot deal with anything else later, that when they finish their studies, they should have a good job and prove their worth immediately. They often have trouble getting involved in something because they are afraid that if they do it, they will have to say goodbye to other possibilities.
Many of them are working from home. They get angry that we have online meetings because they're fed up with looking at a screen all day. They feel that they are unable to cope with isolation, that they have nowhere to unwind. They often say that the socio-political situation scares them.
They wonder if they want to live in such a country?
Yes, exactly. They are afraid to look to the future.
So where can we get hope? So as to share it with others?
Hope is probably in the fact that we are talking, that you are writing about it, that there are people who want to read it. Hope is born when there is reflection.
I also see it in the fact that some young people are politically engaged. They take part in protests and create petitions on matters important to them. You asked how they are dealing with the situation. Now it has occurred to me that some of them are doing it this way. They go out in the streets, express their opinions. It helps them regain their sense of agency and show, "We can think too", "We also have something to say". Doing something together brings people out of depression, helplessness and loneliness.
I am very impressed with how they organise. What banners they prepare. They put a lot of creativity in them.
I am delighted with their sense of humour, sensitivity and social awareness. “Want to defend life? Donate some money to child psychiatry” – this is one of the slogans I will always remember.
Young people are very reflective. They watch themselves, adults and the world. They are aware of the many problems that get swept under the rug. I think we can learn a lot from them. I have certainly learned a lot from them, and I am broadening my understanding.
Thanks to the fact that I accompany them every day in experiencing helplessness and various doubts, I stopped being afraid of these states in myself. It's easier for me to recognise that I don't know everything, that I do not succeed in everything. I think that young people reveal something in us that we know, but we are not fully aware of – our multidimensionality, complexity, also our sensitivity and fragility.
They inspire me a lot. They send music, videos, ask me to read something. They show me their drawings and other creations. On the one hand, I feel very tired from work, and on the other – I can't imagine not having contact with them.
Beata Wójcik – psychotherapist, supervisor. She runs individual and group psychotherapy for adolescents and adults at the ReGeneRacja Centre and at the Psychoeducation Laboratory in Warsaw
The Helpline for Children and Youth 116 111 of the Empowering Children Foundation is open 24 hours a day. In addition to telephone contact, you can also use online help: 116111.pl. The operation of the Helpline is supported by the Kulczyk Foundation.
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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