May 4, 2020

As if teenagers didn't have enough to deal with ó puberty, social pressures with dating, academics in junior high and high school ó here comes COVID, and it knocks their world out of the water. How is this affecting our teens, and what as a parent can you do to help?

So my sister was commenting to me the other day about how hard the stay-at-home order has been on her two teenagers. My older son is just months younger than her daughter, and so I knew exactly where she was coming from. In fact, it's so universal what teens are experiencing that experts have given it a name. They call it social reorientation. Basically, all the things that kids should be doing have disappeared.

My nephew is a junior, and he was supposed to take his SATs. Boom, canceled. He was supposed to be going and looking at colleges. That's canceled too. My niece is a freshman and is a social butterfly, but now she's caged up. She's missing out on all the extracurriculars that she normally does, but she hopes that when she is a junior like her brother, things will be more normal again.

My older son is missing out on a state jazz band competition and all the eighth-grade, end-of-junior-high activities, and my younger son is missing out on the end-of-elementary-school fun, including not seeing some of his friends that he won't see again until high school because they will go to a different junior high. Both of my boys are missing a whole season of competitive soccer.

Everything that is normal for our teens is now gone. While teens are trying to establish new routines and keep up with social demands, they are finding themselves angry, anxious, and depressed. Especially our older teens, who were on the verge of finishing high school, everything they have worked so hard on for so many years to get into the college of their choice, gone. Prom, gone. Walking across the stage to get their diploma, gone. All of it, just gone.

Well, I guess some things are not gone entirely, but they're put on hold. And for how long? Who knows?

Eventually, these teens will be able to go on to college. I know some graduations have been scheduled for in-person ceremonies at later dates. But these kids are isolated. They're missing out on experiences they should be having.

So how can you as a parent, or an aunt, or an uncle, or as society in general help these kids? One word keeps coming to mind ó patience. We need to be patient with them to help them process their very valid emotions. We need to let them know that their emotions are valid, that everything they are feeling is okay.

They are literally going through the stages of grief, grief for the loss of normalcy that they should have. They were probably in shock and denial with schools being closed and being told they had to stay home. Then, pain that they didn't or don't get to do things they wanted to. Then, their pain and frustration will turn to anger, which is where most teens are right now. This is then followed by depression and loneliness brought on by social isolation.

Hopefully soon there will be light, letting us start to rebuild the world for our teens, letting them build their own world with the building blocks from what just crumbled around them and the wisdom that they have learned during the previous stages, and, eventually, our teens and all of us will be able to find the one thing we so desperately need right now ó hope, hope that one day our teens will be able to look back and see how they were able to handle this social reorientation, this pandemic that will define this decade.

There are some teens who are truly struggling more than others. If your teen, or a teen you know, is having an exceptionally hard time with social isolation, please ask your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health specialist. Even in this time of social distancing, our mental health teams are there and able to help.

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