The COVID-19 pandemic has caused extreme deviations from everyday life. The aim of this study was to investigate how these deviations affected adolescents’ sense of coherence and their level of aggression, and whether this was influenced by their relationship with animals, especially horses. In two random samples of students from vocational schools in Hungary, taken in June 2018 and June 2020 (n1 = 525, n2 = 412), separate groups were drawn from those who had regularly engaged in equine-assisted activities (ES) and those who had not (OS) before the pandemic. Data were collected using an anonymous, paper-based questionnaire, and during the pandemic an online version of the Sense of Coherence (SOC13) and Bryant–Smith (B12) scales. During the pandemic, boys’ sense of coherence weakened and their aggressiveness increased. Multiple linear regression analyses showed that, regardless of gender and age group, increased time spent using the internet (p < 0.001), a lack of classmates (p = 0.017), reduced time spent outdoors (p = 0.026) and reduced physical activity (p < 0.038) during the pandemic significantly increased the tendency for aggressive behavior, whereas being with a horse or pet was beneficial (p < 0.001). The changes imposed by the curfew were rated as bad by 90% of the pupils, however, those with a strong sense of coherence felt less negatively about them. Schools should place a great emphasis on strengthening the students’ sense of coherence.
To control the COVID-19 outbreak, restrictive measures have been introduced around the world, including in Hungary. During the first wave of the epidemic, the lockdown was implemented from March to June 2020 in Hungary . These restrictions also affected the everyday lives of adolescents. Education changed to an online format from one day to the next, and face-to-face encounters with other students were abolished. The daily news of the growing epidemic and the increase in the number of deaths, which also manifested in their immediate environment, were traumatizing for adolescents. A scoping review of 11 studies regarding the effects of COVID-19 on the lives of adolescents showed that the pandemic can be considered a determinant that affects different dimensions of adolescents’ lives . This result was reinforced by other studies on the diverse psychological symptoms and behavioral changes in this age group during the lockdown [3,4]. At-risk groups, like justice-involved youth, also showed increased distress and antisocial behaviors .
Comparing the levels of anxiety between different age groups, researchers found that children and adolescents were more apt to feel depression and anxiety during and after the pandemic. Social distancing, school closures and isolation caused disturbances in sleep and appetite, as well as impairment in social interactions, which may even have long-term adverse consequences on mental health. This tendency highlights the need for effective mental health strategies focusing on the needs of children and adolescents [6,7,8], even more so as disadvantaged youth groups, e.g., those with a lower level of education, might develop negative coping styles found to be strong predictors of youth mental health . Prolonged confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic triggered negative emotional reactions among adolescents. Besides anxiety, children and adolescents also experienced anger, sadness, and boredom/emptiness, against which living in a rural area was found to be a protective factor , while low socioeconomic status and limited living space were found to be aggravating factors .
The research results indicate that in an extraordinary situation—such as the curfew due to the pandemic—negative effects, including the tendency for aggression, are significantly influenced by the strength of an individual’s sense of coherence. Young people with a stronger sense of coherence manifested a lower tendency toward aggression, which suggests that they adapt more easily to unusual situations. It follows that developing a salutogenic sense of coherence constitutes an important task for education, and thus for schools.
The research also draws attention to how spending time in nature, dealing with animals, and increasing one’s physical activity directly, but also indirectly, through the sense of coherence, affects the tendency toward aggression caused by the curfew “siege” during the pandemic. Therefore, the narrower and wider social environment must strive to shift these negative factors in a positive direction.