The Covid
"Gap Year"

For 2019 school leavers, there were the usual expectations. That university would provide the gateway to new friendships, fun and career; for others it was looking forward to a first job or a more substantial job, and then there was the potential for the “gap year” which might have involved a combination of work and travel before determining next steps.

Parents and caregivers had the natural mixed reactions to this. The thrill of children becoming more independent and parenting responsibilities changing a bit, the satisfaction of children being “launched”, the fears about whether they are ready, and whether they will self-manage their new routines and goals. For some who saw their children struggling through high school, there could have been hope that the fresh start could invigorate and inspire a new trajectory.

And then there was COVID.

Those going to university learned (along with their lecturers) about the online environment. So, to a degree, educational life could proceed. However, it has perhaps been a lonely experience. Students might have been able to get on with the work, but they have not build the connections that help manage the transition to more self-directed learning, nor forge the sorts of relationships that enable them to share concerns or fears about this new experience. This can mean that our young people are lonely and anxious and can struggle with lack of motivation.

Those looking for work are also struggling. With double digit unemployment looming and many businesses that would normally employ teens closed or restricted, there can be a loss of hope and with that, loss of effort in seeking that first job. That means a lot of time to fill at home, and perhaps a slide into bad habits such as endless gaming, social media, late nights and sleeping in. Parents and caregivers can worry about how to intervene and what to suggest. They too might be worried about unemployment, or alternatively are furiously busy with work and frustration at a young person still in bed at lunchtime.

There are risks at this time:

Young people can lose their bearings in terms of any meaning or purpose, which are the main drivers by which many of us keep going. There can be a sense of pointlessness to the days/weeks/months.

Parents can feel uncertain about what to offer to assist. That can mean that they reach back into the past for their parenting approach, rather than ahead, leading to more conflict. At the same time, the young person is not getting to provide the “evidence” of deserving more responsibility through things like managing a new outside life of higher education or work.

Young people can have started to fill in their time with things that actually make them feel worse, like staying alone in their rooms, stopping regular contact with friends, or taking risks by going out as they are desperate to keep something in their lives moving along.

Parents and caregivers can themselves feel anxious and frustrated about their multiple responsibilities. Depending on their approach to date, some young people may already be actively participating in the household. However, many parents/caregivers may have encouraged their kids to focus on schoolwork and saved them from regular household chores. This can mean battles ensue as parents/caregivers try to introduce/re-introduce the sharing of household responsibilities.

What might assist?

Check in with other parents/caregivers. There is nothing more validating than sharing stories of others experiences and ideas and getting perspective on your own.

Do a stock-take of strengths. It might not be as you expected it, but on balance are their things your young adult is doing/managing that can be affirmed? It can be easy to be drawn to the negative, and that can just lead to defensiveness and reactivity. The positive can be built on.

Build a routine. A structure helps regain a sense of control. This includes a bedtime that matches other household members; ensuring exercise each day, jobs to do that advance personal and household goals – e.g. cleaning out school notes, organising/sorting out their rooms, food shopping and cooking dinner.

Never too late to change. Even though you might feel like the path is now set for the year, sitting down as a household and talking openly about “how are we managing this?” is useful. If in addition, you are stressed with work, ask for help rather than be angry about lack of assistance and participation.

The transition to adulthood. You are now all grown-ups together. Despite the external markers of that being interrupted to a degree, what household markers have there been? Are you asking for a step up in responsibility?  How might that be both encouraged and valued? For example, in dividing up family jobs equally, requesting more self-care, encouraging self-management.

Encourage short term goals. This might be a plan for the next day, or a plan for the week. It could be a domestic challenge, or it could be something to address current concerns. For example, create a CV, contact an old friend, walk 10 minutes extra every day, apply for a job, take up photography, start a blog.

1:1 time. Overtly check in on mental health. Don’t assume that what you see is all there is. Asking the deeper question: “how are you really?” is more important than ever.

Beyond the frustrations and arguments that you might have reasonably expected at this time, you might have more heightened worries. For example, your young person is very withdrawn and isolated, their sleep, self-care, diet, or exercise is slipping, or their mood is particularly low or reactive. Relationships Australia NSW is here to assist you and youth manage conflict, communication, transition and change. We can be contacted on 1300 364 277.

Relationships Australia (NSW) is a leading, independent, not for profit organization, with over 70 years of experience, dedicated to enhancing relationships within families, workplaces and communities in order to foster personal and social well-being. We provide a range of services including counselling, mediation, and dispute resolution, relationship education, information resources and referral. We have also developed an innovative digital product called “Radiant” which connects people with excellent mental health support and resources.

The core of our work centres on family relationships. This involves working with individual family members, couples and family groups. However, with the ever-changing definition of family we provide services which respect difference and are socially inclusive, recognising that individuals’ backgrounds, values, family circumstances and connections are very diverse.

Recognising a strong need within the community, we are quickly building a reputation within the sector for developing specialised programmes for many minority and vulnerable communities including the Elderly, LGBTIQ, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island and CALD populations.

 

Elisabeth Shaw, CEO and clinical psychologist, Relationships Australia NSW

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