Developmental Tasks of Adolescence. Developmental tasks are basically things we’re supposed to be doing at certain times. Understanding what tasks your teen’s brain is working through at the moment can help give you insight into why they think and act in the ways they do.
Separation / Individuation. You may see your teen pushing back against rules and norms, not only in society but also in the household. This can create opportunities for conflict, but remember that their behavior is an expression of the work they’re doing to figure out who they are in relationship to their families as they get ready to enter the real world.
Socialization. Your teen is busy forming their identity, and much of the work of discovering their sense of self happens in relationship to their peers. At this age, they’re conditioned to tend towards tuning their family out and directing their attention out into the world.
Emotion Regulation. During this time, your teen is developing emotional intelligence and coping strategies.
Decrease in Executive Functioning / Self-Regulation Skills. During adolescence, the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning diminishes, while the part of the brain that’s reactive to emotion increases and takes on more of the burden of processing information. This means that your teen processes things through an emotional lens, making them inherently more reactive.
Increase in Emotional Reactivity. You may see your teen experience mood swings, outbursts, and irritability.
Increase in Behavior Reactivity. Your teen may exhibit poor decision-making, risk-taking, and physicalization of feelings.
The brain doesn’t finish developing until around the age of 25, so your teen is basically embarking on a decade-long cognitive and emotional rollercoaster. And remember—they hopped on that rollercoaster even before Covid hit and we all entered crisis mode. Basically, they’ve got a lot going on!
Now that we’ve explored the range of developmental milestones and behavior that you can expect to see in your teen, we can consider that in the context of the pandemic and look at how this ongoing crisis and “new normal” may be affecting individuals and families.
Pandemic-Related Stress Syndrome. This is not a real syndrome (yet), but a collection of patterns that Fara has been observing. Symptoms include:
Depression (sadness, helplessness, hopelessness)
Anxiety (fear of the unknown, loss of control)
Grief and loss, both actual (jobs, money, loved ones) and symbolic (normalcy, routine, opportunity)
Social isolation (can come with pros and cons, depending on introversion vs. extroversion—more on that later)
The Stages of Grief. During a crisis, feelings may mirror the five stages:
These stages are not necessarily linear, and they are not always related to an actual loss. Also, in the context of coronavirus, they mean something very different now than they did six months ago. In the spring, we thought “acceptance” would mean coming to terms with what happened and moving on; now, it means accepting that many of the issues we thought would be gone are not, and we’re in a very different place with the crisis than we imagined. We’ll be going through these stages for a while as they relate to all the areas of our lives that are uncertain. The goal has to be accepting what is uncertain and recalibrating our thinking from this being a sprint to a marathon.
Effects of social isolation on tweens and teens. Covid-inflicted isolation can skew more positive or negative depending on your teen’s nature and whether they’re more introverted or extroverted.
Pros can include:
Time for self-reflection and self-directed activities/tasks
Re-engagement with family
Decrease in peer pressure to engage socially
Cons can include:
Decreased opportunities for socialization/identity formation
Increased feelings of anger, irritability, depression, and anxiety
Enhanced symptoms of social anxiety and lower self-esteem
Social isolation in families/households. In addition to affecting the individual, quarantine has had a profound impact on the dynamics of many households.
Pros can include:
Opportunities to build relationships and share positive experiences
Increased awareness of family dynamics
Creating a “sanctuary” of comfort and support
Cons can include:
Increased tensions around boundaries and personal space
Decreased opportunity for independence and socialization
Cohabitation in atypical household structures (such as a college student living at home or in-laws newly living with the rest of the family) causing now conflicts
All of these challenges can interfere with normal development and create or exacerbate conflicts.
Changes to school structures. With schools shut down or on a hybrid schedule, challenges include:
Loss of familiar structures, resources, and opportunities
The “digital divide” and exacerbation of socioeconomic differences: Some families don’t have access to computers, internet, privacy, or other resources needed for remote schooling, thereby creating additional emotional and academic stressors
Irregular learning environments
Lack of services for students with learning differences
The New FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Differences in individual or family Covid safety precautions can create anxiety and conflicts between and among family members and friends.
Other stressors/concerns at this moment in time. On top of a global pandemic, we’re currently experiencing:
Racial and economic inequalities and social justice movements
Concerns about not doing enough to be an ally or activist
Political instability and volatility
Environmental concerns, particularly climate change and how it will affect our children’s generation
Mental Health PSA: As a result of all the factors discussed above, Pandemic-Related Stress Syndrome is likely to be experienced by most individuals during this time.
Do not panic.
Oftentimes these symptoms can be addressed inside the home with some additional resources for support.
Creating calm. Anxiety and stress interfere with our ability to think and problem-solve. When you stop and focus on your breath for a moment, your heart rate goes down and you can think more clearly. When you’re going through a really hard moment—or day, or week—it can help to think about the five senses in relationship to self-care: What can I look at, listen to, feel, smell, or taste that will give me comfort and help me recharge my batteries?
Creating safe spaces. We can only control our immediate surroundings, starting with our homes. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket describes “sanctuary” as “a small, safe place in a troubling world,” which is exactly what we need to create for ourselves and our children at this moment.
The world has always been uncontrollable in many ways, but now more than ever, it’s important to remember that we can create a safe space where the people we care about can unwind and find comfort and support. This will not only help buffer them from the realities of the world, but it will also help charge their batteries so they’re prepared to go out into the world when it does open up again.
Create structure (with age-appropriate flexibility). Older kids need more flexibility to have agency over their time, while younger kids need a more defined structure.
Set realistic expectations for them (and for you!) We’re all in survival mode, and we have to set our expectations lower than we might have in the past. Yes, we want our children to succeed, but right now we need to go low and slow. The homework doesn’t need an A, it just needs to get done.
Define clear boundaries for work and play spaces and times. This can be hard in a tiny apartment, but wherever you can, it helps to set boundaries between spaces and times. Even putting up a schedule goes a long way.
Create opportunities for family members to talk about how they are feeling. It’s important for parents to have space to be honest without increasing children’s anxiety. Encourage discussions with household members around what is working and what is not, and allow for shared input into the “daily operations” of the household (within limits).
Help teens focus on what they can control. We have agency over how we think, feel, and act, and our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are inexorably linked. You have more control over these things than you think, and so do your children, so remind them of that fact.
Validate teens’ feelings and be honest about your own. Let them know that it’s okay to not be okay. Be realistic (“this is hard”) but positive (“we will all get through this together”).
Create learning opportunities/teachable moments about dealing with adversity. There are really heavy things happening right now, and as much as we want to be optimistic, it’s also important to teach kids that life isn’t always okay. This crisis is a critical point in children’s development, and an opportunity for them to learn to navigate difficult situations.
Offer to help teens plan and problem-solve. If they get overwhelmed, collaborate with them. If they reject your help, encourage them to reach out to friends or teachers, or, if you have the resources, offer to bring in a tutor, therapist, or family friend who can talk to them. It’s their job to separate from you at this point in their development, so don’t be offended if they’re not the most interested in confiding in you.
Allow for privacy and independence. That goes back to the idea of sanctuary: Let your teen have their own sanctuary, even if that’s just hiding out in their own corner of the house for a while.
How to help a college student who’s having a hard time. First of all, it’s important to normalize what they’re struggling with. After that, find out what kind of resources are available to them through their school. Even though mental health centers are overtaxed right now, they should still be available in some capacity at every school. Also provide your teen with these digital resources:
Headspace for meditation
NYC Well digital mental health resources
NYC Well texting services for real-time support
PSA About Screen Time: Extreme Times Call for Extreme Measures. You may not love how much time your teen is spending on the screen, but remember that this is not a normal situation. A few reminders and things to consider about your teen’s online life:
Screens are the predominant source of information, education, and socialization. This is for our safety.
This is not forever.
Most teens prefer in-person socialization and will return to it as soon as they have the opportunity.
Teens are achieving developmental tasks online.
Talk to your kids about what they are doing and why. Their on-screen activities should be advancing developmental tasks of socialization, independence, identity formation, and creativity. By understanding what they’re up to, we can both reassure ourselves and help them eventually build bridges from what they’re doing online to what they’ll be doing in the real world.
Keep an eye out for screen addiction.
When to seek help. As we’ve established, pandemic-related stress is very normal, but if you notice any of these behaviors in your teen, it may be time for you to help them seek professional help.
Significant changes to mood and daily functioning
Uncontrollable outbursts, mood swings, or panic attacks
Indications or expressions of self-harm
OCD-like behaviors (obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors)
PTSD-like symptoms (hypervigilance, nightmares, trouble sleeping)
Finally, while not a “red flag” in the same way as the above symptoms, if they ask to talk to someone, it’s time for you to help them make that happen.
Coping Strategies for Parents
Breathe. Remember, this is only a moment in time. It will pass.
Set personal limits on consumption of news and social media.
Control what you can, accept what you cannot.
Take a step back when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed.
Maintain your own self-care, mental health, and relationships.
Indulge in comfort, but strive for balance.
Set realistic expectations for yourself and your family.
Further resources to help you:
Contact Information for Fara Jones, MA, LCSW
- Screen Time and Social Connection for Kids (or: How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Technology)