Updated: Mar 26, 2020
It may be hard to remember our childhood accurately, but few people forget their adolescence.
Adolescence is a critical time of development with big changes happening in the brain, the physical body, and their psychological and social worlds.
Teenagers are bubbling with big feelings but in 2020 in the midst of COVID-19 they are also grieving the loss of their freedoms, friendships, relationships and hopes for the foreseeable future. Adolescents have had their worlds thrown upside down, their social life has been abruptly severed and they have had to give up on any academic goals and hopes they had for this year. The one thing that has not stopped and will not change is their transition through puberty. This is a tricky time to be an adolescent but there are things we can do to help them build resilience and ensure this as a period of growth not arrest.
The teenage brain
One of the brain regions that changes most dramatically during adolescence is called prefrontal cortex. This is involved in a whole range of high level cognitive functions, things like decision-making, planning, what you're going to do tomorrow or next week or next year, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour, so stopping yourself saying something really rude or doing something really stupid. It is also involved in social interaction, understanding other people and putting yourself in their shoes, and self-awareness.
During puberty, the prefrontal cortex goes through a process of synaptic pruning, the elimination of unwanted synapses. Synapses that are being used are strengthened, and synapses that aren't being used in that particular environment are pruned away. You can think of it a bit like pruning a rosebush. You prune away the weaker branches so that the remaining, branches can bloom. This process fine-tunes the teenager brain and this is partly dependent on the environment. So adolescence is a period of life where the brain is particularly adaptable and malleable. It's a fantastic opportunity for learning and creativity and the environment can and does shape the adolescent brain.
This key because at the moment, the environment that they can interact in is restricted. But their brain is at the most malleable and adaptable right now. This means that you can work with them better now than at any time in their development and you can use this as an opportunity for their learning, both academically and with their interests and curiosity. I would see these as strengths that you can work on.
Talking about it
As the adolescent brain develops abstract thinking they are much more aware of the severity and consequences of what is happening than younger children who take adult information at face value. This can make emotions run high but it can also mean that they will ask difficult questions and critique and dispute the information that is given to them.
I have written about talking to younger children in an earlier blog. The British Psychological Society has also published a resource on talking about illness that you can find here. IN brief, when talking to teenagers I would hold the same concepts in mind of being honest, staying curious and sharing the facts (the World Health Organisation, NHS pages and Gov.uk website deliver the most up to date and factual information on COVID-19).
Teenagers are likely to ask less questions, and turn to other sources of information such as their friends and social media. They might take advice from friends or other social influences on how to behave and act and be conscious of not wanting to act differently. So rather than waiting for them to come with questions, be proactive if you feel able to and ask your teenager if they are okay. They are aware of what is going on and have probably read more things on social media than you have about the subject and people’s reactions to it.
Acknowledge how difficult the situation is. Have an honest conversation about the things that they are angry, sad or grieving about. Whatever they are feeling is normal and likely to be appropriate to the current situation we are living in. However your teenager feels, this is not a sign that they are not coping. These are challenging and trying times and having big feelings is to be expected. If you feel able to, protect a time during the day when you can sit together and talk about the ‘latest updates’, the feelings it brings up for them (and you if you feel able to share this with them).
Challenge Catastrophic Thinking
Your teenager may be thinking about the future with a bleak outlook and this may lead to rumination, constantly having negative thoughts. This can heighten cortisol levels in the body leading to greater stress and lower mood. So try and catch the catastrophising as soon as you can and gently challenge it.
While some teenagers may rejoice at school being closed and their exams cancelled, some will also be worried and upset. They may feel that all their hard work has been wasted and catastrophise about the future and their academic grades, college or university. It is important to reassure young people in a realistic way. In the UK (and as of the 24th of March 2020) the prime minister has said that all children and young people will get the qualification they worked towards. However, the plan of what that will look like in reality is unclear, so you can be honest that we do not have all the answers yet but the government and the Department for Education are working together to make a plan. Also remember that most schools have not closed. Although only children of key workers and those with an EHCP are currently accessing school grounds, many teachers and heads of department are still working, setting up learning packages and online resources. You and young teenager can still speak with them and ask them questions or share worries you may have and see if they have an useful information they can share.
You may overhear your teenager say something catastrophic, like: “What is the point we are all going to die”. Try to approach this with sensitivity and curiosity. So rather than responding with “Don’t be so negative/Don’t say that in front of your sister”, consider what has made your teenager want to say that. Have they been reading/listening to a lot of news? Are they feeling bored or viewing the activity they are engaging in as a chore? Is there an overload of Anxiety around the house?
Consider at this moment what you can say and do to gently challenge the thought they have shared and help them move to a more appropriate place in the ‘here and now’. Firstly, try to acknowledge the emotion they are sharing with you – what feeling are they trying to express behind that catastrophic statement. (e.g. “I am sorry you feel sad/angry/bored”). Then shift into focusing on the ‘here and now’, which is more realistic and purposeful, and try to move them into a more positive space (e.g. “Let’s make a drink and sit together and talk about what scares you for a bit/ I think maybe it’s time to take a break from Maths, fancy putting some music on and doing something else for a bit?).
You may have to sit together and talk on a regular basis, or for most teenagers, ‘do and talk’ which can feel less pressured and more natural. Doing can be any form of activity, from a house chore (like emptying the dishwasher together) to drawing, playing music, making something or playing games together. Play is a great way to reduce stress as is moving your body so try and fit play and movement when things get tough during the day. Movement can be exercise or yoga or any form of physical activity. But it can also be lying on the floor (or if you have outdoor space, lying on the grass). Changing physical position can have a dramatic effect on mood. Try lying down and talking to each other while looking at the sky.
Support them with home learning
Some young people may be really sad about the abrupt ending to school and may be grieving the loss of contact with their friends and their teachers. Others may be feeling anxious or worried about what this means for them academically, or they may be feeling relieved that the school year is over for them. They may have all of these feelings intermittently, and they are all okay.
An important message to remember is that every young person in the country, and most of the world, is in the same boat. It is an unprecedented situation and the government and the educational boards are working together to try and make a plan about what will happen next.
Some ideas that from friends who are secondary school teachers have shared with me include:
1. Try and complete harder subjects in the morning. Maths and English are usually morning subjects at school because that is the time when kids are most receptive to learning.
2. Schedule in regular breaks where they can choose what they do – so play and fun. But also remember the importance of snacks and drinks!
3. Remember that when your child is at school their work is very rarely quiet. Teachers model activities and speak throughout lessons, children talk in groups with their learning partners and they do active learning making experiments and doing creative tasks.
Doing after school home-work may mean a couple of hours of quiet learning but expecting your child to do a day of school in a ‘quiet space’ at home is unlikely to be realistic. I know this might not be what you want to hear if you are trying to do a full days work from home.
The take home message Ifrom all of this is that you don’t have to try and replicate the school environment because you can’t. Offering creative learning tools like videos, media, physical tasks etc… is great. Remember that the environment shapes their brain so the more varied the environment, the better for learning as well as their physical and mental health.
The Division of Educational and Child Psychology has released some guidance for parents on school closures that may also be useful and you can find a downloadable pdf in my resources page.
Develop a ‘coping toolkit’
In times of stress it can be useful to have things at hand that help your teenager cope. What works will be unique to them. To help you, think about a situation that has been stressful for your teenager in the past. How did they cope? What did they do that helped them manage the situation and get through it well. How did you support them at the time?
Consider the areas that follow as opportunities to develop a coping strategy that works for your teenager and helps them build resilience. It may be that your teenager is emotionally too aroused or perhaps findings concentrating and thinking too difficult to manage more than one or two things in any one day. This is normal within the current circumstances and should improve as stress decreases. Some things that can helpful include:
Maintain a regular sleep routine
This is the one routine I strongly encourage you to keep and enforce at home. Whatever your family style is with timetables, chores, and activities, try as much as you can to keep a regular bedtime and sleep routine. Sleep improves our mood, ability to think with clarity, memory, immune function, nervous system and cellular repair and growth. Prioritising sleep is a big act of self-care and one of the greatest antidotes to stress and better wellbeing for your teenager.
Help them establish healthy bedtime routines, including switching off all technology 30 minutes before bedtime, doing an activity that is calming and pleasurable (such as reading a book, journaling, or doodling) and having a warm drink such as a herbal tea infusion, warm milk, or hot brew (but beware of making a cup of tea, green tea or hot chocolate as they all contain caffeine!). Remember that your are their greatest role model and children and young people all learn by example. So try as much as possible to also follow the steps you want them to take. Perhaps take a family stance to switching of the television and all technology early on in the evening so you can all do other activities together (for example, play a board game).
Eat and drink regularly
Eating is a basic human need but in times of stress it is really important to ensure we maintain good energy levels and to help us feel nourished physically and psychologically. Find ways of creating meals that nourish you and your family making this healthy ‘most of the time’. Be creative with what you have if buying food is difficult and don’t worry if you end up having more confort foods and/or convenience foods than you would usually. Pausing from what you are doing to eat meals and have regular snacks can really shift the atmosphere at home.
Avoid alcohol and limit caffeine for you and your teenager. Remember that there is often caffeine in energy drinks, coca cola, and chocolate. Caffeine and alcohol may offer an initial ‘boost’ but it can affect your mood and physical well-being, particularly impacting on the ability to fall asleep and achieve a restful night.
Stay physically active
While practicing social distancing staying active is important for both physical and mental wellbeing. Lots of exercise programs have gone online, but you can also stretch, jump, dance. If your teen is into team sports, consider setting up something you can play as a family, such as rounders or tag rugby. Get physical as a family and watch the mood shift.
Stay connected with friends and family
Spending time with peers is a crucial aspect of developing independence during the adolescent period. The necessity for physical distancing has brutally interrupted this. Teenagers are suddenly dependent on their parents and in close proximity to adults, unable to access the social freedoms and peer relationships they would be in daily contact with. Crucially, being out of school without knowing when they will be allowed to return has in many cases reduced their access to outdoor spaces and social areas.
Friendships are a key resiliency factor for c young people. Encourage them to stay connected using video calls whenever possible rather than using texting and social media sites. Try and set boundaries that maintain their safety by setting up video calls in a semi-private but family space rather than their bedroom. Ensure you have also set parental controls on all home devices. For further help with this have a look at the Safer Internet website which has tools and resources for parents (link in Resources).
Get outside into nature and have fresh air as much as you can
There is a growing evidence base on the positive impact that engaging with nature can have on our mental health and it can protect us from having low mood. So open the windows. Look outdoors. Engage with the world outside of your home in a way that is safe but enriching to you. Listen to the noises on the street, the bird songs, the leaves swaying in the trees. Touch some grass, look out for flowers blooming or investigate what mini beasts live in your garden or patio. Notice how directing the focus of attention outwards and in the ‘here and now’ can shift the focus of your thoughts and calm both the mind and the body.
Connect doing activities that are pleasurable
Once your teenager has grieved, had a duvet day and sat with their difficult feelings, plan some pleasurable and meaningful activities in their day. Teenagers may still have to do school work, however avoid putting too much pressure on academic work this year. Prioritise your relationships as a parent rather than trying to become ‘a teacher’. It is OK not to be doing ‘school work’ for six hours a day. It may be more important to spend time together, building relationships and enjoying shared activities rather than replicating the school timetable.
Make sure they have protected time to do activities that they enjoy and bring fun into their day. Whatever your child enjoys, be it watching YouTube videos, playing video games, reading books or playing sport, give them the opportunity to do them on a more frequent basis than usual. Their world has been turned upside down and it today is not a normal day. Having fun is important and laughing is a great remedy to anxiety. A couple of exercises you could try to bring some laughs and silliness into your home include:
Without touching try and see who can make the other laugh first.
Sit and look into each others eyes and smile. See what happens…
Reduce access to rolling news
It can feel like there are constant updates on the news and social media that you must keep track of. Watching the news can give us a sense of certainty and some control over the situation we are living in. However, time spent on social media, reading and looking at stories, images and graphs will only raise anxiety. Support your teenager in accessing accurate and factual information by directing them to the World Health Organisation website, NHS pages and Public Health England site (see links in resources). Protect a time of day when you can all get an ‘information update’, perhaps first thing in the morning for 15 minutes and in the early evening for another 15 minutes. Try to avoid checking the news or social media just before bedtime as this can impact on sleep.
Look after yourself
These are unique and inpredictable times we are living in, stress and anxiety are normal. You are doing the best you can with what you have. Be kind to yourself, give yourself the self-care you need to be able to keep going to be the parent you need to be for your child(ren).
Find the time to relax and to focus on the breath. Making sure you do both of these activities will promote good sleep, which is a vital needs for good physical and mental wellbeing. A mantra I like to hold in mind in times of stress and when life is overly busy is: “If I can’t sleep, then I will rest. If I can’t rest, then I will breathe”.
Try this simple exercise:
Rather than thinking about your breathing, try using your hands as a focus.
Sit in a relaxed position with the back of your hands resting on your thighs.
As you breathe in, stretch your fingers out wide.
As you breathe out, make a gentle fist.
Notice a little pause at the end of each breath.
Do this 10 times, breathing slowly.
If your mind is busy or stuck on an unhelpful thought you can try using a Mantra to anchor yourself. Something like “I am still, I am calm, I am safe”. Try and say this to yourself at the end of the breathing exercise.
If the above exercises haven’t worked for you don’t worry, there are lots of others you can try. It is really important to find something that works for you and sometimes you have to test out a few before you find one that gives you the calm you are looking for. I have added free mindfulness resources here. I hope you find something that works for you.
Social support and regular social contact with loved ones is key for combatting stress and in the current physically isolating situation, vital for good coping. Make sure you have a network of family and friends that you can talk to and connect with. Plan video chats and calls on a regular basis and boundary how much time you talk about COVID-19 in these contacts. Agree a theme to your conversation or try and play a ‘question and answer’ game where you each pick a random question for the others to answer. Some possible ideas may be:
What rules are most stupid in your house?
Is there anyone you regret losing touch with?
Where in the world would you go if you had the power to teleport anywhere?
Make up your own set of questions and pick some at random to talk about and see where the conversation takes you.
Pay attention to all the little things you usually take for granted. Things like a good nights sleep, yummy food, having fun, are all things we can be thankful for. Acknowledge that difficult things happen and we can learn from these too (eg. ‘We are stuck at home and this means we get to spend more time together as a family’).
Try writing about it and begin (if you haven’t already) a practice of journaling. You don’t need a fancy expensive journal, just ask yourself these two questions every morning and write down the answers (i) What would make today great? (ii) What can I do to make this happen? In the evening, reflect on your day and consider (i) What are you proud of doing today?
You can also create a Gratitude Jar either by decorating a real jar or using my ‘Gratitude Jar Worksheet’, and add a note for anything you are thankful for during the day. Doing this as a family can be useful to acknowledge the good things that are happening at home in spite of the hardships. Make a game out of noticing new things each day. ‘Who will be the first today to spot three great things that happen?’
Expressing gratitude completes the feeling of connection. Schedule a time each day to take turns in reading out each note. For some families it is at the end of each day (open the jar or bring out the picture and talk about it over dinner) or it may be that it fits better for you at the end of the week. Try it out and see what works.
Celebrate at the end of each day
This is really important in times like these because stress, anxiety and uncertainty can rob us of our self-efficacy and our ability to acknowledge how much we are managing to do and how well we are indeed coping. Notice your accomplishments at the end of each day. Do this by journaling and keep a record for yourself and/or you can try and make this a family activity. Share a proud moment you have witnessed your child, partner, yourself make today. Don’t overlook every-day tasks (like cooking a good meal, setting the table or doing the washing up) celebrate what you have managed to do and the role each of you has played in your day. You are doing enough, and that should be celebrated every day.
If your adolescent is engaging in lots of at risk behaviours, feeling particularly low for longer than a week or Anxiety is getting in the way of every day, then speak with a mental health professional. Many services within the NHS are still open and offering support via remote services such as online therapy. Call 111 to access services near you.
Dr Martha Deiros Collado
Come chat to me on Instagram @drmdc_paediatric_psychologist and Twitter @Dr_MDC