COMMENTARY

Is Your Patient Having an Existential Crisis?

Barbara J. Howard, MD

June 16, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The news is portraying our modern time as an existential crisis as though our very existence is threatened. An existential crisis is a profound feeling of lack of meaning, choice, or freedom in one's life that makes even existing seem worthless. It can emerge as early as 5 years old, especially in introspective, gifted children, when they realize that death is permanent and universal, after a real loss or a story of a loss or failure, or from a sense of guilt.

The past 18 months of COVID-19 have been a perfect storm for developing an existential crisis. One of the main sources of life meaning for children is friendships. COVID-19 has reduced or blocked access to old and new friends. Younger children, when asked what makes a friend, will say "we like to do the same things." Virtual play dates help but don't replace shared experiences.

School provides meaning for children not only from socializing but also from accomplishing academic tasks – fulfilling Erickson's stages of "mastery" and "productivity." Teachers were better able to carry out hands-on activities, group assignments, and field trips in person so that all children and learning styles were engaged and successful. Not having in-person school has also meant loss of extracurricular activities, sports, and clubs as sources of mastery.

Loss of the structure of daily life, common during COVID-19, for waking, dressing, meals, chores, homework time, bathing, or bedtime can be profoundly disorienting.

For adolescents, opportunities to contribute to society and become productive by volunteering or being employed have been stunted by quarantine and social distancing. Some teens have had to care for relatives at home so that parents can earn a living, which, while meaningful, blocks age-essential socializing.

Meaning can also be created at any age by community structures and agreed upon beliefs such as religion. While religious membership is low in the United States, members have been largely unable to attend services. Following sports teams, an alternate "religion" and source of identity, was on hold for many months.

Existential despair can also come from major life losses. COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll of lives, homes, and jobs for millions. As short-term thinkers, when children see so many of their plans and dreams for making the team, having a girlfriend, going to prom, attending summer camp, or graduating, it feels like the end of the world they had imagined. Even the most important source of meaning – connection to family – has been disrupted by lockdown, illness, or loss.

The loss of choice and freedom goes beyond being stuck indoors. Advanced classes and exams, as well as resume-building jobs or volunteering, which teens saw as essential to college, disappeared; sometimes also the money needed was exhausted by COVID-19 unemployment. Work-at-home parents supervising virtual school see their children's malaise or panic and pressure them to work harder, which is impossible for despairing children. Observing a parent losing his or her job makes a teen's own career aspirations uncertain. Teen depression and suicidal ideation/acts have shot up from hopelessness, with loss of meaning at the core.

A profound sense of powerlessness has taken over. COVID-19, an invisible threat, has taken down lives. Even with amazingly effective vaccines available, fear and helplessness have burned into our brains. Helplessness to stop structural racism and the arbitrary killings of our own Black citizens by police has finally registered. And climate change is now reported as an impending disaster that may not be stoppable.

So this must be the worst time in history, right? Actually, no. The past 60 years have been a period of historically remarkable stability of government, economy, and natural forces. Perhaps knowing no other world has made these problems appear unsolvable to the parents of our patients. Their own sense of meaning has been challenged in a way similar to that of their children. Perhaps from lack of privacy or peers, parents have been sharing their own sense of powerlessness with their children directly or indirectly, making it harder to reassure them.

With COVID-19 waning in the United States, many of the sources of meaning just discussed can be reinstated by way of in-person play dates, school, sports, socializing, practicing religion, volunteering, and getting jobs. Although there is "existential therapy," what our children need most is adult leadership showing confidence in life's meaning, even if we have to hide our own worries. Parents can point out that, even if it takes years, people have made it through difficult times in the past, and there are many positive alternatives for education and employment.

Children need to repeatedly hear about ways they are valued that are not dependent on accomplishments. Thanking them for and telling others about their effort, ideas, curiosity, integrity, love, and kindness point out meaning for their existence independent of world events. Parents need to establish routines and rules for children to demonstrate that life goes on as usual. Chores helpful to the family are a practical contribution. Family activities that are challenging and unpredictable set up for discussing, modeling, and building resilience; for example, visiting new places, camping, hiking, trying a new sport, or adopting a pet give opportunities to say: "Oh, well, we'll find another way."

Parents can share stories or books about people who made it through tougher times, such as Abraham Lincoln, or better, personal, or family experiences overcoming challenges. Recalling and nicknaming instances of the child's own resilience is valuable. Books such as "The Little Engine That Could," "Chicken Little," and fairy tales of overcoming doubts when facing challenges can be helpful. "Stay calm and carry on," a saying from the British when they were being bombed during World War II, has become a meme.

As clinicians we need to sort out significant complicated grief, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, or suicidal ideation, and provide assessment and treatment. But when children get stuck in existential futility, in addition to engaging them in meaningful activities, we can advise parents to coach them to distract themselves, "put the thoughts in a box in your head" to consider later, and/or write down or photograph things that make them grateful. Good lessons for us all to reinvent meaning in our lives.

Barbara J. Howard, MD, is assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (www.CHADIS.com). She had no other relevant disclosures. Her contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at pdnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com , part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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