Teenage in the Time of Coronavirus

Understanding your adolescent's brain can help reduce parental anxiety.

Posted Apr 25, 2020

My 16-year-old son just told me he's been keeping a list of all of the movies he's watched since the stay-at-home order began in our city. "It's 38," he offers, scrolling through a note on his phone. "And that's not counting ones I've re-watched."

I listen and offer a tepid smile, aware of the competing voices inside my head, and the potential responses they might offer.

The Taskmaster is not so pleased, clucking her tongue as she asks, "That's nice, but have you cleaned the bathroom yet?"

The Homeschool Teacher (a role all parents have been unofficially assigned) anxiously wonders, "That's a lot of movies… do I need to check that you're actually getting your homework done?"

The Über Mom in me asserts her over-caffeinated self, "But what about our whiteboard list of productive activities… like brushing the cat, jumping on the trampoline, playing Boggle, or writing handmade greeting cards for elderly folks stuck in nursing homes?"

My own anxiety as a parent is finding so many opportunities to flourish these days. With all of the usual social, academic, and external structures designed to keep my teenagers focused and on track at this point a hazy memory, it can feel dangerously like living in freefall. At other moments, it reminds me of being home with my newborns, when a trip to the grocery store was an occasion for a fresh swipe of lipstick and a tingle of liberation as my foot hit the gas.

The feeling of being hemmed in by social isolation, yet also responsible for taking control of the new daily routine, can be exhausting. As I talk with parents of teens in my practice, I hear the worry, doubt, and fatigue in their voices:

"I don't know if I'm doing enough."

"Should I just leave her alone in her room all day?"

"I have no idea what he's doing on his screen most of the time."

"I feel so bad about all they are missing."

"Will they be OK?"

Wyatt Zingus, used with permission
Teens and screens are inescapable during social isolation.
Source: Wyatt Zingus, used with permission

These threads are woven throughout so many conversations around me. For most of our high schoolers, especially seniors, there is so much loss—sports events, spring break trips, dance competitions, art shows, graduation ceremonies. But for the teens I work with, there is something else too—something that looks a lot like a huge sigh of relief at being sprung from that same track I just mentioned, the one that often leads them to feel stressed out and overwhelmed, with little flexibility or room to maneuver about at their own pace.

Aside from relief, what I'm hearing from teens also gives me hope. Yes, they may be spending a lot of time on their screens, but they are finding a way to stay connected to their friends at a time when that connection is so vital. We know a fundamental task of the teen brain is to find and nurture meaningful social connections. The therapist's voice in me ruminates on this thought, imagining the likely increase in depression (and social-distancing rule-breaking) if our adolescents were not able to virtually connect with their peers. Remember the days of the rotary phone mounted on the kitchen wall? I do, and I am grateful every day for my kids that it's not the '80s.

Yes, they are spending lots of time on the things most parents reflexively bristle at—Netflix, FaceTime, TikTok, Instagram, Xbox. They seem to watch YouTube for hours and have an incomprehensible fixation with memes that make no sense to anyone born before the millennium. They listen to podcasts as they move from room to room and make us wonder how they can stand wearing earbuds all the time.

Of course, we want to aim for balance—that ideal mix of quiet reflection, focused time, movement, play, and family connection. (And yes, they should also clean the bathroom.) But instead of focusing on what feels less than ideal, when I hold in the frame what we know about the teenage brain, I discover something else.

I note how the innate drive for novelty and creative exploration might be rewarded by a funny video or learning something new on YouTube, or how the need for community and connection with peers is sustained by endless hours on FaceTime. In short, I see teens adapting to previously unimaginable circumstances, and doing it remarkably well, all things considered, in a way that is helping them get their neurodevelopmental needs met.

Try that reframe next time you notice your heart rate is starting to increase when you find your teen splayed out on their bed, smartphone in hand. Before pushing in, tend to your own nervous system by stepping back and taking a nice, long, deep breath. Then consider this: It's possible that they are doing their best to help themselves be OK. As parents, it's vital that we honor this, and even grant ourselves permission to do the same.