Some suggestions for helping our adolescents navigate the coming months
“Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.”
During a recent conversation with a high school student, we discussed the ambivalence of going to places and doing things like we did in the “before times” when we’d never heard of COVID-19. How will it feel eating inside a restaurant or going to a movie, even when one is fully vaccinated? How have we changed over the past year, and why do we have mixed feelings about doing certain activities we know rationally have little risk? According to a report from the American Psychological Association, nearly 50% of American express anxiety about returning to in-person interactions.
How will our children re-enter the world they left so suddenly a little over a year ago? I have thought about this a great deal over the past few months, and even more so lately as we see more and more students on campus and engaging in activities. A recent article in the New York Times called “How to Help Your Adolescent Think About the Last Year” discusses the issues with children returning to school and the world at large and how to help them navigate this “new normal.”
There’s little doubt that the past year has affected all of us in different ways. For some children who already suffered from anxiety or depression, the experience of living during a pandemic has been an accelerant; for other children who may have never experienced mental health issues, being at home for long periods may have catalyzed new feelings of isolation and anxiousness. Some children have enjoyed being at home rather than at school while others have found it intolerable. While there may be similarity in experiences, it’s important to bear in mind that for each child, what they have felt is their own reality.
Parents of middle school age children may fear that the changes of the past year will turn out to be long-lasting. Notes the article from the Times: “But mothers and fathers of middle schoolers — the parenting cohort long known to researchers as the most angst-ridden and unhappy — are connecting now in a specific sort of common misery: the pressing fear that their children, at a vital inflection point in their academic and social lives, have tripped over some key developmental milestones and may never quite find their footing again.”
As the article points out, some worry may be justified. “According to a much-cited report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of emergency room visits that were mental health-related for 12 to 17 year olds increased by 31 percent from April to October 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.”
In turn, watching children go through painful experiences alerts and worries parents. That’s only natural. As the old saying goes, “a parent is only as happy as their least happy child.” As a result, we may convey our concerns to them, and this may cause a self-reinforcing cycle which can exacerbate the situation for children.
Unfortunately, for much of the past year when young teens should have been going through identity formation and separation from parents, their efforts were stymied by physical distancing and staying at home. In the same manner that college freshmen had to remain in the nest when they were ready to spread their wings and fly away, middle schoolers were “stuck” at home with family right when they were primed for individuation.
Adults should recognize but not be captive to this reality. In order to help our children, we may need to shift our focus toward a more positive mindset that recognizes their resilience and ability to bounce back. (As parents, even if we don’t feel upbeat, this is a time where we may need to fake it until we make it.)
Fortunately, science may be on our side. As the article explains, early adolescence is a time of enormous brain plasticity and neural development. This partially explains why teaching middle school students can be so challenging but also so exciting.
As much as we worry about time lost or experiences sacrificed, we adults might have to change our narrative, at least within earshot of our children. If we convey to children that the past year has been difficult but they have not been damaged permanently, they will bounce back and maybe even be better for what they accomplished in spite of the past year.
For much of the past year, many of us feared that getting children to wear masks would prove an impossible task. As children so often do, they surprised the grownups and rose to the challenge. This whole year, children in the Little and Lower Schools and all the way through senior year have worn their masks in class, on the playground, and walking around campus because they understood that’s what was expected of them.
The same middle school student’s brain that can engender hypersensitivity and vulnerability can also provide adaptability and resilience. There are certain elements, though, that offer children a fighting chance. “What factors keep adolescents from tipping from one state to the other?” the Times article notes. “Mental health experts point to a few: their connection to at least one good friend; any underlying vulnerabilities like mood disorders; the adversity in their daily lives; the availability of adults to help them cope with hardship — and whether their parents are keeping it together.”
Perhaps one of the greatest predictors for middle school student success is connections to friends. Consequently, parents may need to adjust their expectations and practices. For example, we might have to allow more screen time than we would do ordinarily if we’re not comfortable with children being with their friends in person. It may not be our usual practice but we may need to acknowledge that different times require different measures.
Maybe as we continue to find a new normal, we should change our tune. We can acknowledge that the past year has been hard and unique. However, in the same way that muscles respond to stress and strengthen (outside of extraordinary circumstances), so can our children grow back stronger from the struggle. “We have to start considering how we are going to frame this period as we emerge from it,” said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. “We need to focus not just on hardship and tragedy. We need to praise them for their flexibility and resilience and ability to change.”