Musings

Supporting the Emotional and Mental Wellbeing of Adolescents and Emerging Adults during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Image by Nghai Le from https://unsplash.com/photos/V3DokM1NQcs

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic, and related control measures, has disrupted the lives of many people across the world. The rapid increase in the global spread of the virus has created a sense of uncertainty and anticipatory anxiety as to where this will all lead. In an attempt to slow down the spread, governments of many countries have implemented multiple preventative measures and restrictions including cross-border travel restrictions, regulations for social distancing, quarantine arrangements and restriction/closure of educational institutions. As a result, children and adolescents are experiencing a prolonged state of physical isolation from their peers, teachers, extended families, and community networks. This social distancing and closure of educational institutions is increasing mental health problems in children and adolescents who are already at a higher risk of developing mental health issues compared to adults.

As I mentioned in my previous article, schools and universities are not merely there to educate our youth academically, but also play an important role in their psychosocial development. As students engage in school, they develop a sense of connectedness or belonging to others and to the school community, as well as skills that will carry them through life. Social distancing and school closures are likely to result in increased loneliness in children and adolescents as their usual social interaction is curtailed. This may be because of the particular importance of the peer group for identity and support during this developmental stage. Although social isolation is not synonymous with loneliness, loneliness is a painful emotional experience of a discrepancy between the desired and actual social contact. Recent studies have shown that more than 30% of adolescents report high levels of loneliness and almost 50 % of 18-24 year olds report feeling lonely during lockdown. Researchers maintain that there are established links between loneliness and mental wellbeing, suggesting preventative support and early intervention to address the mental wellbeing of our youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, this crisis may well have a great impact on the careers of university graduates as they experience major interruptions in teaching and final assessments. Many students are likely to graduate later as a result of the postponement of their final examinations and face the challenges of finding employment during a global recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With my four children, 2 adolescents and 2 emerging adults, at various stages of their educational paths (in three different countries and three different time zones), the consequences of the preventative measures of COVID-19 has been challenging to our family to say the least. That said, I fully acknowledge that I am in a more fortunate position than many in that I did not have to go out to work during this period and so was in a position to offer my children as much support as I could – some academic, most of it emotional. There are so many parents and caregivers that have not been as fortunate and for them, closing educational institutions could only have added extra stress and anxiety to an already stressful time. This article is very much limited to my own research, my worldview and my perspective, however, I hope that some of this information will be of use.

The Teenage Brain

I am sure you may have noticed that sometimes your teenager’s behaviour and thinking seems quite mature, but at other times seems to be illogical, impulsive and emotional. These shifts and changes can be better understood if you consider that their brains are quite literally, still under construction.

Although the brain reaches its biggest size in early adolescence, it is not until mid- to late 20s that it is fully mature. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for skills such as impulse control, emotional regulation, planning, prioritising and the assessment of risk, is the last part of the brain to fully develop. Because these skills are still developing, adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviours without considering the consequences of their decisions. While the prefrontal cortex is still developing, adolescents rely on a part of the brain, the amygdala, to make decisions and solve problems. The amygdala drives the so-called “fight or flight” response and is associated with emotions, impulses, aggression and instinctive behaviour. It is not surprising then that adolescent brains are more vulnerable to stress.

Further changes in the brain during adolescence include a rapid increase in the connections between the brain cells and making the brain pathways more effective. Nerve cells develop an insulating layer, myelin, that helps cells communicate. All these changes are necessary for the development of coordinated thought, action, and behaviour. These brain differences between adults and teens does not mean that young people can’t make good decisions or tell the difference between right and wrong. It also doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. However, an awareness of these differences can help parents, teachers, advocates, and policy makers understand, anticipate, and manage the behaviour of adolescents.

While adolescence is a vulnerable time for brain development, the teen brain is resilient. Some changes that occur in the brain during this developmental phase may actually help protect against long-term mental disorders.

Technology, Social Media and Adolescents

Rapid advances in technologies such as email, social media, mobile phones, and instant messaging, are having a profound impact on our children’s social interactions and connectedness. There are those who suggest that the more technologically connected we become, the more disconnected we become. However, other research has shown that young people view technology as essential to their relationships. Particularly during the pandemic, with social media being one of the only ways to connect with their friends, this has become even more so. Even for teachers and parents, there are benefits of media…imagine the how much more difficult home-schooling would be without the internet and Zoom? While technology offers important opportunities, it also poses significant challenges and risks including exposure to inappropriate content, cyberbullying, and harassment. The internet poses particular risks as dissemination of information is quick, global, and often permanent.  As mentioned earlier, the developing prefrontal cortex of the teenage brain is still mastering tasks such as impulse control, emotional regulation and the assessment of consequences and risks.  It is perhaps not surprising then that young people commonly share their sexual desires, compromising photographs, and provocative videos in online communities such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.

In her book, Raising Global Teens, Dr. Anisha Abraham, refers to the work of Dr. Piotrowski who maintains that rather than concerning ourselves on the amount of time our child spends on screens, we should rather focus on the 3 Cs: content of what the child is watching, the context of their interactions with the media and finally, understanding our own child sufficiently to know which forms of media enrich them and which could be causing harm. There is a lot of concern from parents around Internet addiction. Dr. Michael Rich suggests that rather than using the term Internet addiction, we should use problematic interactive media use (PIMU) instead. PIMU usually refers to the excessive use of video games, social media, pornography and seeking information online. Those afflicted by PIMU may also present with other conditions such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), social anxiety, substance abuse or depression.

Tips for parents:

  • Model tech-free behaviour: although this it is difficult at times, try and keep social family gatherings and meals tech-free.
  • Have autonomy-supportive conversations: teenagers need to develop skills to manage their own media use. Teenagers have not yet developed good self-regulation and are susceptible to peer pressure. Discuss expectations for use and issues of privacy and digital footprints.
  • Encourage face-to-face connections with their peers where possible (within the constraints of social distancing).
  • Create media contracts for setting rules and responsibilities, but ensure that you get your teenager’s buy-in.
  • Avoid over-monitoring: parental restrictions can have an adverse effect on social media use, making it even more attractive to their teenager. Rather discuss social media use, the advantages as well as  the pitfalls.

Understanding Social and Emotional Changes during adolescence

During adolescence, you may notices changes in the way your child interacts with family, friends and even peers. Each child’s development is different and affects by genes, brain development, environment, experiences within the family, friend groups as well as community and culture. And we can add pandemics to this too!

Social and emotional changes are indicative that your child is in the process of forming an independent identity and learning to be an adult. Children express a strong desire for autonomy at two developmental stages – toddlerhood and adolescence. This desire for self-governance, for feeling, thinking and behaving independently becomes particularly intense in late adolescence as young people develop a greater understanding of the world around them and confidence in their own abilities. And while all parents and caregivers want their child to make this transition into independent young adults, this period if not without its difficulties.

I read a beautiful analogy of raising teens being like clay on a potter’s wheel. For this one needs two hands: one for stability, consistency and reliability; the other for more creative expression and guidance. Although that stability is important, two firm hands develops a standard somewhat bland cylinder. We need the balance of both hands.

Three nuggets of advice that I was once given by a friend on dealing with the teenage years were:

  1. Don’t take it personally
  2. Keep a sense of humour  
  3. Know that this too shall pass

Social changes
Some of the changes that you may notice in your teenager are:

  • Searching for identity: adolescents are trying to work out who they are and where they fit in the world. This can be influenced by cultural background, school and family, peer groups, gender, and of course the media.
  • Striving for more independence: this is likely to influence the decisions your child makes and the relationships your teenager has with family and friends.
  • Seeking new experiences: the nature of teenage brain development means that teenagers are likely to seek out novel experiences and engage in more risk-taking behaviour. But, as we noted with the teenage brain, they are still developing control over their impulses.
  • Developing a moral understanding: your teenager will start developing their individual set of values, appreciating “right” from “wrong”. Your child will also questioning more things and start to appreciate that they are responsible for their own actions, decisions and consequences.
  • Seeking more responsibility, both at home and at school.
  • Influenced more by their peer group and friends, particularly with respect to behaviour, sense of self and self-esteem.
  • Beginning to develop and explore a sexual identity: your child might start to go on “dates’ or have romantic relationships. Depending on the social group and culture, these relationships are not necessarily intimate. For some young people, intimate or sexual relationships don’t occur until later on in life.
  • Communicating in different ways: the internet, cell phones and social media can significantly influence how your child communicates with friends and learns about the world.

Emotional changes
Some of the changes that you may notice in your teenager are:

  • Emotional fluctuation: Moods may seem unpredictable, which can cause conflict. Your child may show strong feelings and intense emotions at different times. The adolescent brain, as mentioned above, is still maturing and learning how regulate and control and express emotions.
  • Increased levels of self-consciousness, particularly with regard to their physical appearance and changes. As they develop, teenagers often compare their bodies with those of friends and peers. An adolescent’s self-esteem is often affected by appearance – or by how other teenagers think they look.
  • Sensitive to the emotions of others: Adolescents get better at reading and processing the emotions of others as they get older. However, while they are developing these skills, they can sometimes misread facial expressions or body language.
  • Feelings of being invincible: As mentioned above, the prefrontal cortex that controls decision-making skills is still maturing and as such, the teenager often goes through a stage of thinking and acting as if nothing bad could happen to them. They are still learning about the consequences of actions.

Changes in relationships
Other changes that you may notice in your teenager are that they:

  • Choose to spend more time with friends and less time with family and
  • Have more arguments with you: it is quite normal for there to be some conflict between parents and children during the teenage years as your child seeks more independence. It actually shows that your child is maturing. Conflict tends to peak in early adolescence.
  • View things differently from you: At this stage of development, teenagers start to think more abstractly and question different perspectives. However, they still find it hard to understand the affect of their behaviour and comments on others. These skills will develop in time.

Supporting social and emotional development

  • Listen: Listen with the intent to understand. Listen to your child’s feelings. If your teenager want to talk, stop and give them your full attention. I find that the best times to really talk and listen are on car rides or while walking, there is less intense eye-contact which makes it easier to open up.
  • Use a strength-based approach to parenting: This approach focuses on the positive attributes of your teenager rather than the negative. It allows for the right conditions for your child to see themselves at their best, to see the value that they bring by just being themselves. When teenagers use their strengths, they enjoy what they are doing; the focus is on the process rather than on the outcome of the activity. They are also able to use these strengths in times of adversity.
  • Be a good role model. Children learn from observing relationships where there is respect, empathy and positive ways of resolving conflict. Set a good example in forming and maintaining positive relationships with your friends, children, partner and colleagues. Model positive ways of dealing with difficult emotions and moods.
  • Learn: Be open to learn, unlearn and relearn. This has been an interesting one for me, I have learnt so much from my children in so many aspects of life. But before I could honestly learn, I needed to be prepared to unlearn and to relearn. Unlearning is about discarding something learned (especially outdates information), letting go of my own prejudices and biases. It is a bit like stripping paint, it is needed in as a foundation for the next layer of fresh learning.
  • Communication: Staying connected with your teenager can be an important part of supporting their social and emotional development. Be open and explicit about your own feelings and emotions. In particular, tell your child how you feel when your child behaves in different ways. Discuss relationships, sex and sexuality with your child. Try and find “teachable moments” – those everyday times when you can easily bring up these issues. Research shows that even though teens may turn to their peers for opinions about social matters, they actually place more worth in parental advice on values, ethics, morals, religion, politics, and planning for the future.
  • Set boundaries: Setting clear and consistent expectations gives your teenager security. It is important to have boundaries and to allow your child to develop within these boundaries, to push them and feel that they know where the stakeholders stand. Aside from knowing what the rules are, they need to know why they’re there, reasoning behind them. They need to know the consequences in order to make calculated risks. This is an important part of adolescence. It is also important to remember to adjust some rules to meet your teen’s changing needs as they grow.
  • Social Connections: There are three important outcomes of social connectedness: belonging, psychosocial wellbeing, and identity formation. Adolescents begin to develop emotional autonomy through the support of their peers, so their friends’ thoughts and actions are initially important and crucial to their sense of self. Encourage your child to have at least one social connection a day, to put aside five minute to ask how someone is getting on. Staying in touch with others can make us feel happier and more secure. Often just speaking to someone else can help to lift our mood.
  • Autonomy: Encourage your child to make their own decisions on things such as how to style their hair and clothes, decorating their bedroom, *selecting after-school activities. Allow your adolescent to help with the decision-making process in your home, too. You can start with asking them to gather information and help you make major decisions such as purchasing a family car, *planning family holidays, or even meal planning. (* post COVID-19 of course!)
  • Laugh every day: Laughter and stress have the exact opposite effects on the body mind and as such, laughter is a natural cure for reducing stress and anxiety. When we laugh, our pituitary gland releases its own pain-suppressing opiates. Laughter also increases memory, creativity and learning.
  • Be active: We all know that being active isn’t just good for our physical health; it’s also been shown to have a positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing. Exercise and physical activity produces endorphins, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, which provide anti-anxiety effects.
  • Connect with nature: Spending time in nature has been found to help with mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Exposure to beauty in natural spaces can foster prosocial tendencies including agreeableness, perspective taking, empathy, generosity, trusting and helping behaviour.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness and meditation teaches us how to recognise and accept our present thoughts and emotions. It can also help us cope with negative stressors in our life and become more aware of our feelings. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve mental well-being, focus, and retention of materials learned in class.

Specific Support during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Supporting the mental health needs of our children as they navigate online learning is critical. The radical change in lifestyle can feed loneliness, anxiety and even lead to depression. Parents are now at the front line of responsibility for identifying emotional and mental health issues of their teenagers. Previously, friends, staff members and other students would be able to detect early signs of mental health issues. But, online, our teens are often not seen by fellow students, advisers or others. They are living in unobserved anonymity from their peers and parents are often the only primary direct contact they have. It is therefore up to us to notice any changes in their behaviour and mood, looking for signs of emotional and mental health issues. There are a number of warning signs and while these vary from person to person.

  • Excessive worry, anxiety or paranoia.
  • Long-lasting sadness or irritability.
  • Extreme changes in moods.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping pattern
  • Struggling with concentration.
  • Feeling restless, wound up or on edge.
  • Becoming easily fatigued.

Please seek professional advice if you are concerned about your teen.

Hope and mental wellbeing:

I am a naturally optimistic person, and I have a huge amount of admiration for, and belief in, our youth. The manner in which they are able to assimilate, critically evaluate and process the vast amount information that they have access to, astounds me. My biggest concern, however, is that they are losing hope – hope for their own future in these uncertain times, hope that they can still save the world from itself.

In these uncertain and frightening times, it is hard to feel hopeful. However, research has shown that having hope for the future helps build our resilience – that ability to get through tough times and recover from setbacks. Hope can also protect us from or reduce anxiety and depression. Positive psychologist, Charles Snyder, formulated the “hope theory” and maintains that hope gives people the will, determination and empowerment that allows them to reach their goals. Hope and mental health are inextricably linked; we can strengthen both by taking small, daily actions that will help us and our teens thrive even in the midst of uncertainty.

Here are some recommendations on how to cultivate hope:

  1. Focus on strengths. Tapping into our natural strengths cultivates a sense of hope and resilience. For example, if you’re naturally creative, think about how you can use that strength to overcome difficulties as you move forward in life. If connecting with others is one of your strengths, reach out to friends and loved ones as a way to build hope and positive emotions. Remembering and using personal strengths creates confidence that we can get through whatever comes our way.
  2. Limit news consumption. Both news coverage and social media can have negative effects on hope and mental health. News tends to focus on the most frightening and sensational aspects of what’s happening, and it can make us more vulnerable to vicarious. Distinguish facts from rumours and misinformation. While social media does help to make young people feel connected, it can also increase feelings of social isolationWhere possible, distinguish facts from rumours and misinformation.
  3. Practice gratitude. Studies on gratitude show that practising gratitude is more effective than self-control, patience or forgiveness in creating hope for the future. Encourage your teenager to keep a gratitude journal listing the small and big things for which they are grateful. Families can practice gratitude together during evening meals, sharing three things that are grateful for at the end of each day.
  4. Reframing negative thoughts. When your child is feeling afraid or hopeless, encourage them to try and look at the situation from a different perspective. For example, if they are thinking that they will never be able to go to university, pass university or get a job during the pandemic, try and get them to shift that thinking to “Yes, it may be more difficult to achieve all of this but if I use my strengths, I can work towards overcoming these difficulties”.
  5. Spend time with hopeful, optimistic people. Studies have shown, through the science of “emotional contagion” that if you surround yourself with people that are hopeful and positive, you are more likely to “catch” these positive emotions yourself.

Look for silver linings:

While I would not suggest that the pandemic is a good thing with the number of deaths, global economic recession and vast increases in stress and anxiety, let us try to find the silver linings.

  • We are finding new ways to connect with ourselves, our families, and our loved ones.
  • We are realising the importance of community.
  • We are deepening our sense of gratitude.
  • We are appreciating that we are able to do things that seemed impossible and we can make sacrifices for the greater good.
  • We have learned the importance of personal hygiene that will hopefully become lasting habits.
  • We have been forced to slow down a little bit, take a breath and appreciate the stillness.
  • We are spending less on needless consumer goods.
  • We have been reminded of our essential humanity, our interconnectedness to one another. The coronavirus does not pay attention to borders, passports or politics. We are all in this together.

Image by Ron Smith from https://unsplash.com/photos/63tBU8et1YY

“Hope isn’t the alleviation of fearful risk, or the side-lining of anxiety. It’s the choice to see beyond the current circumstances to something better despite the presence of those feelings.” 
– Ron Carucci, Organizational Change Consultant

The realities and uncertainty of COVID-19, as well as the need for social distancing and isolation, is tearing at the fabric of our most fundamental methods of coping. Although we cannot control the pandemic and all that it brings, we are able to control our reaction to it. We can control what we read and what we share. We can control how we listen to and support the people around us.

Let us do what we can to support our youth, their future and ours. Let us try and find that silver lining. Let us use this as time to reconnect to one another and to our environment.

Perhaps after learning how to come together to fight this virus, we’ll carry that spirit forward to fight against racism, sexism, inequality, and climate change. Let’s hope!

Resources:

The Teenage Brain

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zVS8HIPUng

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O1u5OEc5eY

Fight Flight Freeze – Anxiety Explained for Teens

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpolpKTWrp4

Raising Global Teens – Dr. Anisha Abraham

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijPW3ATc018

Useful links on the coronavirus

https://www.who.int/

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1hIcpNBehI2olRFs0UUkYQ76IyctCyIKT/view

Odyssey offers strength-based approach webinars and workshops to parents and guardians that can help them support adolescents in developing social-emotional skills. Please contact Dr. Judy Blaine (judy@odyssey.net.za) for further information.