- The COVID-19 lockdown is hard on everyone emotionally, but adolescents are the most psychologically vulnerable population. Tweet This
- As parents, we need to help our teens understand the seriousness of social distancing, which is contrary to their normal instincts. Tweet This
- Teens have difficulty seeing past present pain and towards future hope. Tweet This
My son is experiencing intense sadness and disappointment over the disruption of a critical milestone in his life—his senior year of high school. No prom, no celebrations, and no graduation ceremony. For the most part, he is separated from the friends he has known most of his life and with whom he has shared so many experiences. He is blocked from doing precisely what he is supposed to be doing: socializing and engaging with his peer group to separate from his family and become independent. His inability to see the end of this crisis recently led to this question: “Mom, what if I can’t go to college in the fall because the world is falling apart?”
The COVID-19 lockdown is hard on everyone emotionally, but adolescents are the most psychologically vulnerable population. Many teenagers, who tend to have difficulty understanding—and perhaps regulating—negative emotions during normal times, are likely feeling emotionally confused, if not totally overwhelmed, by the current pandemic crisis. Unlike adults, who may be frightened in the present but understand that this will end, teens have difficulty seeing past present pain and towards future hope. This diminished consideration for the future, and greater focus on the present, is further suggested by impulsive decision-making observed in adolescence.
Impulsive decision-making, and a hyper focus on present suffering without consideration of future hope, are risk factors for suicidal behavior. In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death for persons ages 10–14, 15–19, and 20–24, according to the CDC. Many teens attempt or succeed at committing suicide when they cannot understand that their present pain is temporary. As parents, we must brave our own fears of mortality and economic hardship as we continue to meet the emotional needs of our scared children. This means putting aside our own anxiety as adults, whose livelihoods or health may be at risk, to meet the emotional needs of our adolescents.
Fear about this real-life crisis is compounding teens’ already overwhelmed psyches that are stressed by academic and social pressure, threats of climate change, college decisions, political instability in our nation, and fears of unknown employment opportunities and material success. Anxiety and depression are rampant in teens—over 10% of 12 to 17 year-olds meet criteria for an anxiety, depression, or behavioral diagnosis, according to the CDC, and the stress from this crisis might become a trigger for more severe symptoms.
Teens who are generally socially withdrawn and anxious may become even more socially isolated. My patient’s son, a 14-year-old boy, who even under normal circumstances struggles socially, is now spending all of his time in his room, binge watching post-apocalyptic Netflix shows with his door closed. He sleeps all day, skips many meals, and comes out only to eat dinner. He refuses to go outside to even to take a walk. And he is increasingly isolated from the few friends he had before the pandemic.
Parents should take special efforts to engage their teens and encourage them to socialize with their peers as much as possible, even if that is simply over video chat or an interactive video game. Teens are meant to be social, and this encouragement is critical for their well-being and emotional security.
Additionally, parents need to be aware that teens may take more health risks than other age-groups during this time. The parts of their right brain that regulate emotions, calculate risk, and weigh consequences are not fully developed until 25 years of age. This makes them more impulsive, more prone to engage in dangerous behaviors, and more likely to harm themselves or others. Our physical presence as parents, as well as our sensitivity and attunement to their emotional states, are critical to helping teens through this strange and stressful time.
Another job we have as parents is to help our teens mourn the losses they are facing, including semesters cut short, separation from friends, and postponed or cancelled celebrations. We must remain calm without being oblivious to their suffering. Teens in particular can tell when we are lying to them, so it is important to present the situation as realistically as possible while remaining hopeful that this will pass and that we will be stronger for living through it.
Ultimately, we need to help our teens understand the seriousness of social distancing, which is contrary to their normal instincts towards socialization. We must help them see past the present and into a future that is not apocalyptic or an end. And we need to re-iterate that social distancing is not a permanent state of affairs, and that it will ultimately instill in all of us a richer appreciation for our health and our relationships.
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Ms. Komisar is also a Contributing Editor to the Institute For Family Studies.