Understanding our teenagers’ in the ‘new normal’

At the best of times, becoming a teenager is difficult. However, this isn’t the best of times, though. So, how can we, as parents, continue to support our teenager’s? What do their actions and thoughts tell us about what’s happening to them? And how do we untangle those that are an understandable answer to the pandemic’s constraints, those that are typical of the adolescent years, and those that might warrant more specialist help?

Right now- our teenager’s may feel indignation at the injustice of restrictions on lockdown, or seeing their future plans altered. Or at school, they may feel nervous about having to be exposed to crowds. Many of these can be legitimately felt right now by young people. Such interactions come at a time when they are meant to grow their freedom and options are meant to be open to them. These fresh limitations have come as a real shock to many teenagers.

Currently, I am struggling with huge amounts of mum guilt. I feel guilty for working so much and teaching online, whilst my daughter is spending hours and hours on her own each day. I’m learning myself how to navigate multiple online learning environments, which is taking quite an emotional toll. With having too much screen time it means we are not sleeping well and then the anxiety and depression can build up.

I’m not sure there’s ever going to be a return to a normal, post-pandemic life.

But as long as we remember parents everywhere are struggling, it can be a huge struggle to keep any child and young person focused on a screen minute to minute, apart from wondering whether they are getting anything out of the experience or keeping up with their peers.

Let’s be realistic- it’s exhausting. So, let’s try to not be so hard on ourselves.

Teenagers’ readily pick up on parental concerns, spoken or not, and our sense of personal guilt may be affecting our children too, which can also show up as anxiety affecting their sleep. Although there is a certain amount that is beyond our control, such as, the unreliability of the internet connection. This will add to everyone’s frustration and concern, which gives rise to worry of always being behind, and mire your children in a sense of failure and a host of negative feelings.

Our adolescents’ are suffering from what they can’t have from a screen- the experience of being with their peers. They learn in multifaceted ways, not just from reading books and watching screens but from talking to others and observing their classmates, older students and teachers. The social environment is a huge motivator too, especially for teenagers’ who struggle with learning conventionally. It’s also likely that they’re missing out on some physical activity they get from daily life movement- walking to school; running around with their friends and other daily activities.

We can’t make up for the social experience the pandemic is stealing from so many school children and young people or magically cure the internet reception. But there are some small steps we can take that may yield outsize rewards. An abundance of studies show that adolescents’ concentrate far better after a short break for vigorous activity, even 15 minutes of outdoor play. Finding time for a couple of breaks may seem counterintuitive when you’re feeling behind and focusing intently on the mastery of online learning, but it may actually do much to promote the achievement we and our children need. At the very least, it will relive some of the distress everyone is feeling.

Let’s not assume we know what our teenagers’ are worried about- we learn from studies that when a young person feels fully understood (or ultimately feels that their thoughts or frustrations are viewed as legitimate and worth attempting to understand), there is an increased chance that they will concentrate their attention on the mind that has understood them (ours). In addition, they are more likely to trust what comes next (e.g. the ideas for various things to do) and consider them worth a try.

Finally, remember that our minds are not so completely different from our teenagers’ minds. We also fall into states of undue certainty or ‘quick fix’ ways of thinking. However, as adults we generally have more of the ‘wiring’ in the front of their brains that helps resist this (brains tend to settle into ‘adult’ form from around the age of 24). Although these parts of the brain are developing in adolescents, they’re not yet fully mature. We know that one of the things that actually helps a brain to mature is being exposed to thoughtful and reflective minds, (i.e. ours!)

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