The COVID-19 quarantine has challenged many of us in a variety of ways, from navigating school and work virtually to missing fun opportunities and traditions with friends. As a 2020 college graduate, I know what it’s like to experience all of that and can empathize with a good bit of the pain experienced. According to two recent studies, however, the group getting hit particularly hard with the effects of social distancing is adolescents. They struggle more with intensified emotions and anxiety around their friends, themselves, and school. As these students continue to attend school virtually and even as they recover from the ramifications after, knowing what negative effects they’re having to deal with and how we can support them is crucial.
As far as their experiences, let’s look at the studies. One study focused on teenagers between 16 and 19 years old, and the other study looked at kids between 11 and 14 years old. Dr. Emma Ashworth, a psychologist and lecturer, is involved in both studies, and she’s seen the pandemic’s impacts on adolescents. “Particularly among older teenagers, there was a lot of heightened emotions, particularly stress and anxiety, due to uncertainty about the future, e.g., what will happen to their exams, going to university, et cetera. Both groups had some anxiety about COVID, particularly vulnerable family and friends catching it,” she said.
And for younger teenagers, virtual school has been a prevalent challenge. “They found not having face-to-face support from their teacher very challenging, and without a structured routine they found it difficult to motivate themselves to do the work,” Dr. Ashworth said. “Even when teenagers have been back in school, it still hasn’t been the same — they have to stay in ‘bubbles,’ can’t go too close to the teacher, et cetera — and so they haven’t found it easy.”
While both groups experienced school and career-based anxieties, they both also struggled socially. The seriousness of this aspect is exacerbated by their age. “This is a time when young people are typically becoming more independent and increasingly relying on their friends, which they can’t necessarily do at the moment,” Dr. Ashworth said. And as much as some parents may tease their teens for being on their phones too often, virtual interaction didn’t satisfy these adolescents. “They often felt that using technology to keep in touch wasn’t the same and felt unnatural. Lots of young people reported feeling that they were becoming distant from their friends,” Dr. Ashworth explained.
However, students can practice certain skills and tools to help themselves. According to Dr. Ashworth, the studies’ teen participants found activities such as routine-planning, engaging in new hobbies, and goal-setting helpful. In addition, they tried to focus on the positives of spending time in quarantine, like having more family time, not dealing with normal pressures, and appreciating what they have.
But for younger kids in need of support, Dr. Ashworth suggests seeking help from an adult, such as a parent, teacher, or school counselor. Kids don’t always know how to recognize, label, and respond to their emotions effectively, and adults can help them do so. Additionally, encouraging kids to have a wide-reaching support system with adults holding various roles in their lives is helpful. The kids may not feel comfortable sharing certain aspects of their lives with their parents, for example, and mental health professionals know more about handling certain situations most effectively with the help of research and therapeutic tools.
While building that thorough network is important, parents can also help their kids and teens in several important and needed ways. Dr. Ashworth recommends promoting self-care and talking about your feelings, as well as providing routine and opportunities for learning new, enjoyable skills. “Ensure children have a structured routine, with a clear divide between school and home life. Provide opportunities to learn new skills or engage in new hobbies, find nice things to do, spend quality time together. Find things which help give their children a purpose,” she said. All the while, pay attention to the kids’ well-being and give them autonomy so they can feel independent and spend time with friends.
Lastly, teaching and practicing self-love is crucial for both adolescents and parents, especially now. “Lots of our ‘normal’ coping strategies aren’t available and we might need to find new ways to care for ourselves,” Dr. Ashworth explained. Further, self-compassion has many positive effects on your brain and your body, including decreased stress, resiliency, and empowerment. To encourage self-love behavior in children, parents can engage in it themselves. “Children learn by example and will observe how parents behave, and mimic this behaviour. They look to parents for guidance, particularly in times of unknown,” Dr. Ashworth said. She then gave examples of self-love behaviors, such as bubble baths, cooking enjoyable meals, and spending time relaxing.
Ultimately, keep in mind this is a challenging time and that we all need a little extra self-care right now. Take care of your mental and physical well-being without guilt or anxiety, as best as you can, and try to stay gentle and compassionate with both yourself and your kids. We’ll get through this!
Ashley Broadwater is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Public Relations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’s passionate about mental health, body positivity, relationships, Halloween, and Dad jokes.