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Ekklesía Online


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Teenagers and the pandemic

The rich world
of emotions

Maddalena Ionata

Adolescents are vulnerable by nature and it is not possible nor desirable to spare them disappointment and upset. But there is also great richness at this age, a richness that challenges the world of adults. Psychotherapist, Maddalena Ionata, reflects on the ways in which adolescents have been able to live the "virtuality" forced upon them by the pandemic with a positive look to the future.

My first work experience was at the ‘listening desk’ of a vocational institute, one that was central to the clinical work I would later undertake with adolescents. Meeting in a classroom setting and getting to know them individually was a challenge but also a precious opportunity for students and for me. It also offered me a chance to observe them in their daily environment and approach them on tiptoe, giving them the opportunity to be seen and heard in a safe, protected space.

In class there was curious interest and openness to receiving from those who had something to give. There is vital energy in youth and a thirst for intense relationships, things which are often extinguished in adults. While some are perhaps the same adults that they also live with, they are felt by other teens as emotionally distant. In fact, this is precisely the complaint of teens in their regard: "You have lost the spark in your eyes". They almost seem to want to reproach adults. Their adolescent "mission", so to speak, is one of "awakening" and opening themselves to "real life" with its affections, curiosity, research and initiatives, as well as its obligations, duties and dull, daily routines.

From initial enthusiasm to uncertainty

New memories are built daily. A small part of our memories overrides time barriers while the rest remain silent. The explanation for this is quite simple: Memory is an emotional process. In fact, for this reason many Italians still have vivid memories of their gut reactions and what they lived on that first day of the lockdown on March 9, 2020. 

My first memory is of teens’ excited voices outside the mental health center where I served. Swarms of teenagers poured onto the streets that morning after the announcement of school closures. Their enthusiasm was mixed with my sense of unease: What will we encounter? The news during those days contained conflicting messages with no real perception of risk, nor its effects over time. Certainly no one would have expected a national lockdown that would last months.

As psychotherapists, we also found ourselves unprepared as well. The vast scientific literature available proved insufficient. It did not allow us to fully understand what we were experiencing, much less foresee its long-term consequences. This is because we were faced with an event -- the pandemic -- which had no precedent in the history of psychology. We knew this emergency required us to keep therapeutic relationships alive. Yet, therapy offices were no longer safe places. So, like many colleagues, I turned to Skype and WhatsApp video calls with my young patients. Overnight I found myself entering their homes, though not necessarily their rooms. "From my room, you can hear everything," explained 17-year-old Sonia (names are fictional), who preferred connecting from her parents' room at the end of the hall. Or another, Paul, explained: "Today is sunny and I thought I'd connect from here," as he smiled in the light of the apartment terrace. Then, there were those who did not have a room to themselves: “Sorry, doc, can we talk when my parents go shopping?” another asked.

When affection loses its three-dimensionality

With some teens I had to limit myself to telephone appointments. In those long months we were a voice for one another. Voices (theirs) sometimes agitated, sometimes bored, but also frightened,