One of the most important needs of any teen is a sense of belonging. As COVID-19 emerged and most American’s were thrust into a shelter-in-place order, we faced an unprecedented upheaval of social isolation, uncertainty, health and economic fears, and massive disruption to education. For teens especially, the social isolation left a gaping need for social connection that could only be met through technology, social media, and online connections.
Experts and parents were rightly advising limits to technology as the known risks of screen time have been front-page news for many years. Before the pandemic, experts were warning of a crisis of cognition in part created by addictive technologies. The anxiety caused by the pandemic interferes with attention. If you struggled with ADHD or executive functioning before the pandemic, you may struggle even more now than you did before.
COVID-19 is a straightforward recipe for mental illness—social isolation, very real health and economic fears, uncertainty, loss of control, and massive disruption of everything. According to The Washington Post, “A third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression, Census Bureau finds amid coronavirus pandemic” (May 26, 2020, Fowers and Wan).
This means there are no easy answers. While we have to play offense against creating a video game/technology addiction or loss of sleep cycle due to a free-floating sense that no one has to be anywhere anytime, we can’t go to the extreme of trying to enforce rigid schedules and unrealistic rules on access to technology. It is through technology that teens find their way to belong when the rule of the land is social distancing.
One simple tool is to create balance. Take out a piece of paper and write on it, 1) Get schoolwork done, 2) Get exercise, 3) Help out around the house, 4) Spend family time, 5) Maintain a healthy sleep cycle. Yes, I know many of you are staying up late while your parents sleep. Your parents may not be able to monitor you as closely as they had previously. They may be facing job loss, health fears for themselves and their parents, the challenges of working from home, or fear of losing their job.
This can be a time to take responsibility for your own physical and mental health. All of your executive functions including focus, motivation, emotional regulation, planning, and impulse control will be negatively impacted by disrupting your sleep cycle. While not a recommended time, if you are online late into the night despite your parents’ guidelines, take responsibility not to go to bed later than 1:00 am. This isn’t ideal for you, but it may be a compromise with reality while doing damage control of completely shifting your sleep cycle.
Hey Parents, Try This
Teens will likely hear you more if you communicate clearly, compassionately, curiously, and calmly. Express confidence in your teens and appreciation for them. If you lead with your fears, this can lead to teens becoming fearful or feeling controlled. A teen’s developmental challenge is to develop an independent sense of self. If you can speak to them with a future orientation—speaking to the benefits for their future self as a result of not creating a lot of bad habits during the pandemic—that is your best shot to get them to hear you more. Think of it as planting seeds; they may not give you the pleasure of showing they agree with you, but trust that you are planting seeds and that they hear you.
Finding Benefits in a Global Pandemic
While the mental health risks of the pandemic are real, some teens have found advantages. While this may not feel realistic, remember that the actual finding of benefits will protect you from anxiety and depression. At the very least, you can try to make meaning of the pandemic. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frenkl writes about surviving Auschwitz—a German concentration camp—by being determined to make meaning of it and bear witness to history.
On a much smaller scale, one source of meaning is the realization of how much of our life we take for granted. You may have rarely appreciated the ease of social connection, the ability to walk around without a mask, to eat a meal in a favorite restaurant to celebrate a birthday, walking to the library after school to study with friends, or going to lacrosse practice. None of these seemed like a big deal before the pandemic. Once these activities resume, they may feel like cherished moments. Perhaps our satisfaction meter shifts, these small things will become big things.
For some teens, benefits were found in the transition to online learning. While many struggled with the transition away from the social connections in the classroom, clubs, and sports, others found that that online learning made focus easier without all the expected distractions. For those with hyperactivity, they could pace their learning and take breaks to move around. For those who were often criticized for talking too much in class or disrupting others, they felt a sense of relief at not getting in trouble anymore.
For some, the pace of life slowed down as the rush from the classroom to the sports field left wide-open spaces of time that relieved some stress. For those whose schools went to pass/fail grading systems, the sudden reduction of constant pressure to perform was a relief.
For some teens, being relieved of peer pressure or social drama allowed them to gain a wider perspective on the emotional toll of day-to-day life in high school. They reconnected with their internal compass that can become clouded among the desire to fit in. The slower pace offered the opportunity for introspection.
Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, is a worldwide attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) expert and coach. She is a clinical psychologist, and author of The Gift of ADHD, The Gift of ADHD Activity Book, The Gift of Adult ADD, The ADHD Workbook for Teens, and Listening to Depression. She has also published more than twenty-five scholarly articles. Learn more about her work at www.addisagift.com.