Dealing with COVID-19: Adolescents Suffering in Silence
by Natalie Kemp, MA, LPA, Department Chair for Psychology and Assistant Professor of Psychology
MOUNT OLIVE – University of Mount Olive Psychology Department Chair Natalie Kemp shares insights on the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on teens and young adults.
As a professional, I know that the adolescent years are significant times of growth and development as young people try to find their identities and place in the world. Peer relationships are important and the fight for independence is strong, but confusing. Their minds are full of questions, theories, and insecurities not only about their present situation, but also about what may come in the future and how they will be able to navigate all the choices they have before them. However, as a parent of two teens, I also know when I ask how they are doing, the standard reply is, “Mom I am fine- leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about it!” At first I thought maybe it was just because of my psychology background and maybe they were afraid I was trying to launch into a therapy session, but then parents all around me started sharing the same stories of how their teens are shutting down and not wanting to talk about how they are feeling in the midst of a pandemic. Don’t get me wrong, they are talking, or should I say really texting, about how they feel and expressing themselves on social media and with their peers. They have strong opinions of what is going on and what their futures may look like, and it is not always what we have all secretly wanted for our kids. I humbly want to offer three suggestions for staying connected with your adolescents and how you can support them in a loving and helpful way during these very unpredictable times.
Our youth have opinions on every subject under the sun, but they may not feel comfortable expressing their thoughts to adults for fear of judgment or condemnation. A great way to get them talking is to engage in other non-threatening activities before bringing up the subject. For example, work on a project together like learning how to change a tire for the car, baking cookies for the family, or even working on a puzzle together. These are things that are generally not in their normal routines and will set up an informal environment conducive to opening up. Adults should ask open ended questions in a casual way and then be ready to listen without interjecting. For example, a senior in high school may be afraid that going away to college is not even an option anymore with so many schools moving to online options. Her dreams of moving to another state, joining a sorority, and being part of a big college campus may seem unrealistic and disappointing. Rather than trying to come up with alternative solutions, try listening and asking more questions about what she thought it would be like and what is disappointing her the most. Listen for disappointments in the current situation like not having that big birthday party they were looking forward to, no more sleepovers, and the roller-skating rink still being closed. Of course, the loss of traditions or big events like proms, graduations, yearbook signing, and homecoming can be major occasions in the life of a teen. These disappointments are easy to joke about on social media, but the hurt sometimes runs very deep and they may just want to say it out loud. Some may surprise you and even want a hug, but most of all, they want you to listen and just reassure them that they are loved. They don’t want promises that we may not be able to keep or guesses about what the future will bring, but rather a non-judgmental listener to just be there.
Every adolescent is unique and will have different responses to what is going on in the world around them. After you have listened to what they have to say, be sure to let them know that you accept them right where they are at. Some may be scared and worried about their future and what that looks like. Some may be holding back emotions of anger and disappointment and don’t really trust that things will work out. Still others could feel quite anxious and unconfident in their own capability to move on. Accept them at all those levels and help to bolster their resiliency. Focus on the positive in a realistic way and encourage daily routines for consistency. There are so many things in this world right now that are out of their control, but remind them that they can control taking good care of their physical and mental health by having consistent times for going to bed and getting up, eating, and exercising. It is easy to fall into the habit of staying up very late to play video games, then getting up late and missing breakfast/lunch and then being too tired to engage in any physical exercise. Maintaining a daily routine that is flexible for fun helps to keep things in perspective and provides hope for the future. Taking a break for fun and connecting with others is important, so try to focus on some family time every week to relax and enjoy one another’s company. Journaling, blogging, or even talking to their peers about how they are really feeling on a deep level should also be encouraged.
Trust but verify
Teens all over the world are easily connected through social media and texting. Adolescents may develop relationships with people online that they have never even met, but they may spend several hours a day playing games together, watching each other’s videos, or just chatting online. It is an important part of social emotional development as they learn about interacting with others. However, especially for younger teens, this new freedom can be quite overwhelming. Adults should make sure they have talked about the dangers of cyber bullying, predators, and sexting. After talking with them about how to be responsible online, trust that they will make good decisions. However, ask frequently about what they are doing or watching and verify as you deem appropriate. Many parents use apps that can monitor for inappropriate activity or language. Talk about topics you see on the news or social media and ask what they think about it. During this pandemic, there may be more free time than ever to be online. This environment may be more negative and leave them feeling even more isolated and afraid. Encourage more psychical activity and exercise in between hours spent online and be a good role model by checking your own activity as well.
As we all walk through this unprecedented time, we have a choice of how we will respond. As parents and families we can choose to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, and that will most certainly rub off on our adolescents. Instead, I’m suggesting that we choose to try to open more lines of communication with our teens and focus on the positive and instill hope for the future. If we are not careful, they will suffer in silence because they may not feel heard or accepted. They are at an age where they are old enough to comprehend what is going on and now is not the time to ignore them or just hope they will be alright. Actively seek out a healthy relationship with your teen today and invest in our future.
The University of Mount Olive is a private institution rooted in the liberal arts tradition with defining Christian values. The University is sponsored by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists. For more information, visit www.umo.edu.
A picture is worth a thousand words! Esmeralda Vazquez-Nunico, a junior biology and human resources double major form Mount Olive, shows what is like trying to concentrate with the added stress of COVID.
Malak Kafi of Mount Olive recently graduated from UMO and is returning this fall for her graduate studies. She demonstrates the stress that many college students are feeling as a result of the uncertainty of COVID-19.
University of Mount Olive Psychology Department Chair Natalie Kemp previously shared information on the effect of COVID on younger children, this second article specifically addresses the psychological impacts of COVID-19 on teens and young adult