We are all frustrated with pandemic life: the lack of social opportunities, the disruption to daily routines, kids and adults alike being stuck at home, and now the back-and-forth about school re-openings and closings. Pandemic life is tough on everyone – but there are reasons why adolescents may struggle more than younger children or their adult counterparts. In this article, we’ll briefly review why adolescent development presents challenges to social distancing and offer practical tips to support adolescents and their caregivers.
Why is COVID-19 especially tough for adolescents?
Progression through developmental stages is dependent on completion of developmental tasks. In adolescence, many of these developmental tasks are based on peer engagement and social interactions. This is a time when teens typically explore new relationships, form strong relationships with peers, and begin to distance themselves from their family unit in the search to form their own identity. This is a major reason why the isolation of COVID-19 is especially challenging during adolescence. Limited peer interactions and the complexities of navigating social environments are very different than they were pre-pandemic.
In the context of COVID-19, the challenges of social distancing and disruptions in routine for adolescents may manifest in the following ways:
- Youth frustration and anger at social isolation at a time when peer and social development would have been the norm in non-pandemic times;
- Conflict between youth and other family members, especially if parents may be perceived as the enemy when enforcing social distancing;
- Brain development patterns lead to differences in perceived risks in adolescents, which may be frustrating for caregivers;
- For some youth, increased risk of depression or anxiety, or exacerbation of pre-existing mental health concerns.
There are developmental differences in communication and risk perception in adolescents, and some degree of conflict may be inevitable. Here are several suggestions to minimize conflict and promote health for the entire family:
- Frame COVID as the bad guy. Remember that parents and caregivers are not the enemy – the virus is. When discussing limitations because of COVID-19, make it clear that any decisions are due to the virus and safety concerns. For example: “I know how much you wanted to go to the beach with your friends, and it really sucks that COVID is keeping us from spending time with people we really miss.”
- Avoid engaging in debates about the safety of certain events or discussion about what other families may be doing differently. State decisions and rules simply and with a concise, clear explanation.
- Try not to escalate conflict. It’s likely that there will be days when adolescents may escalate conflict by shouting or arguing. If and when that occurs, take a deep breath and respond with calm and kindness. If an adolescent is having trouble regulating their response and the situation continues to escalate, take some time for everyone to cool down: “I can see that you’re really upset. Why don’t we hit the pause button on this conversation and talk about it tomorrow morning to give everyone a chance to take a break?” Remember that parents and caregivers have the benefit of a fully-formed prefrontal cortex (the portion of the brain responsible for impulse control and executive functioning), and the onus of de-escalation falls on us, not the adolescent.
- Allow space for grieving what has been lost. Missing friends and not being able to participate in the developmentally appropriate tasks of adolescence is a significant loss. Acknowledge the loss, and allow space for sadness.
- The book “How To Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk” by Adele Faber is an excellent resource for parents and pediatricians. It is written in accessible language and can be recommended to parents who are struggling, but even experienced parents and practitioners may find new information and strategies.
And finally, remember to take care of your own mental health as a provider or caregiver. As Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation.” Make space for your own needs, and be gentle with yourself and any adolescents in your life.
Katy Miller, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician and an Adolescent Medicine Fellow through the LEAH program at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Dr. Miller is a Clinical Field Liaison with Atlas International, Inc.