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Teens' Experiences in the Age of COVID-19

What U.S. teens are saying about how the pandemic is impacting them.

If given the choice, would you be 17 again? What if you had to do it during the year 2020?

By now, you are well aware of how significantly COVID-19 is shaping and re-shaping life in the United States. News reels have produced unending coverage of pandemic statistics, government responses, economic fallout, and volatility in the financial markets.

Less prominent in the national conversation, however, is the experience of our nearly 42 million teenagers, despite having to cope with numerous disruptions to their lives (e.g., school closures, movement to remote learning, restrictions on leaving their homes, the inability to physically gather with friends).

Psychologists and pediatricians have warned that COVID-19 may be particularly challenging for our youth.1 This is because the pandemic has created situations and arrangements that don’t “fit” with their developmental needs. For example, adolescents are more sensitive to social acceptance from friends, but are now more limited in how they can connect with their friends. They are striving toward greater independence in their families, but are now spending unprecedented amounts of time at home.

My colleagues and I recently completed a nationwide study of 400+ teens between the ages 14-17. We asked them how they thought COVID-19 had impacted them socially and emotionally. Our findings were not shocking, but they do provide helpful context for those of us who work with youth. The publication is forthcoming (I will provide a link when it becomes available). What follows is only a brief summary of what they reported experiencing.

Feeling emotionally distant from friends. A hallmark trait of adolescence is an increased need for social connection.2 It was no surprise, then, that the most common challenge among teens was that they missed spending time with their friends. Despite electronic means of communication, many still felt distant and emotionally detached from their friends. Some even worried that they could lose their friendships. Some examples of what adolescents said:

Source: rahmani kresna/Unsplash
Adolescents have uniquely strong needs for affiliation and friendship.
Source: rahmani kresna/Unsplash

“Not being able to see and talk to my friends in person really puts a strain on our friendship.” (16-year-old girl)

“{Before COVID}, my friends helped me relax and calm down, it was my break.” (14-year-old girl)

"I don't see my friends anymore. Video chats are OK, but being in someone's physical presence, that is how friendship and bonds are made and sustained." (15-year-old boy)

Feeling overwhelmed by family. Adolescents also need growing degrees of independence within their families.3 Perceived violations of this independence create conflict. Many teens in our study expressed that spending so much time with their families was starting to become overwhelming. They expressed that they lacked the boundaries and privacy that they felt they needed. For example:

To actually get private time relaxing in my room is difficult. Everyone is home so there’s always noise and someone knocking at my door." (14-year-old girl)

"My family supports me but it has been hard to have them all day long watching over me." (17-year-old boy)

Restlessness from not getting out. Activities such as hobbies and extracurriculars play an important role in helping adolescents discover interests and talents, and ultimately an emerging sense of identity. As such, teens in our study voiced frustrations about not being able to get out of the house to participate in activities that were important to them. For example:

“Not being able to play on my basketball team makes me really angry, sad, and depressed." (15-year-old girl)

"Sitting in the house all day and not really talking [is hard]. My mom sleeps and my dad tinkers in the basement." (15-year-old boy)

Fears about the pandemic. Many youth were worried about the pandemic itself. They were fearful about spreading the virus to older and more vulnerable loved ones. Other teens were simply overwhelmed about the overall situation.

“I worry that I might catch it and give it to my mom." (15-year-old girl)

"It's hard to just keep calm from everything I hear on TV about COVID-19.” (16-year-old boy)

Gaelle Marcel/unsplash
Abrupt loss of routine can present mental or emotional difficulties.
Source: Gaelle Marcel/unsplash

In a funk. Adolescence is a time when mental health challenges are more likely to emerge,4 and so the situation with COVID-19 may certainly pose a risk. The abrupt loss of routine and structure had some teens feeling like they were “in a funk.” They noted feelings of lethargy, sadness, and difficulty getting going.

"I don’t feel like doing anything and I miss my friends.” (15-year-old boy)

“Being able to stay happy and find reasons to get out of bed. Life has gotten very boring.” (14-year-old girl)

Some positives:

Despite these difficulties, it is important to note that adolescents identified various positive opportunities resulting from the pandemic (though these were less common). Adolescents acknowledged many benefits of spending more time with their families. For example, many reported feeling greater closeness to their parents and siblings, in spite of the occasional frustrations with them. Teens also mentioned that they had more time for reflection and self-development as a result of slow-downs in their routines.

This points to teens’ natural resiliency, and suggests that there are positive possibilities for development despite the challenges of this time. For example, for some teens, there may be great benefits to spending more time with their parents, as long as that time is respectful of boundaries and independence.

Conclusion

If you are a parent, a teacher, or if you work with teens in any other capacity, you’ve likely heard or sensed similar things. The pandemic may remain with us for some time, and so it is important that as we work to create safer routines and environments, we do so in ways that still honor the unique needs of our youth. What have you found that has worked well for you and your teen during these times?

References

1. Golberstein, E., Wen, H., & Miller, B. F. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and mental health for children and adolescents. JAMA pediatrics. Available online.

2. Brechwald, W. A., & Prinstein, M. J. (2011). Beyond homophily: A decade of advances in understanding peer influence processes. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 166-179.

3. Keijsers, L., & Poulin, F. (2013). Developmental changes in parent–child communication throughout adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 49(12), 2301.

4. Merikangas, K. R., He, J. P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A., Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., ... & Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in US adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(10), 980-989.

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