By Bryn Jessup, PhD
Director, Family Services & Systems,
In Illinois, the governor’s stay-at-home order has meant that you and your teenager are probably spending more time at home than you used to, maybe more than you even thought possible. Your teenager has become better acquainted than ever with their phone, their screens and their game systems … with social media and all the usual platforms for communicating with friends and others … and, for better and for worse, with the other members of their own family. Especially with you!
All this togetherness gets complicated and even crazy-making at times. Understanding better what our teenagers are going through can point the way to helping them manage their stress levels and protect your own sanity in the process.
- Compared with their younger selves, most teenagers want to spend more time with peers, doing more kinds of self-directed activities with friends, and cultivating interests and activities that set them apart from other members of their family.
Extensive research in adolescent development reveals it to be a time of significant brain development particularly in those areas of the brain responsible for directed action and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex (Giedd, 2015; Siegel, 2014). At the same time, there is a strong developmental push to establish greater independence and autonomy in the context of family relationships, especially with parents (Arnett, 2009). Add to these developments the activation of teenage endocrine systems that in turn heighten emotional experience and reactivity. Research confirms what you may know as parents: older teenagers actually experience emotions more intensely than do children and adults (Sapolsky, 2017). Taken together, these developmental trends mean that most teenagers are strongly disposed to make decisions and take action in the service of keenly felt needs for greater independence, separation and autonomy.
- But during the current stay-at-home orders, your teenager doesn’t get to do some of those things at all, or not as much, or only inside your house where EVERYONE ELSE CAN SEE AND HEAR THEM. In the family fishbowl, it’s even harder to do your own thing, to make your own choices, to be your own boss – at a time when that matters more than it ever has before. Why? It’s not just because your teen is cooped up at home – it’s because they’re staying at home with a brain that’s wired for exercising their independence!
- COVID has affected nearly everything about normal life for you and your teenager: school; work; hanging out with friends, including who you can see, and when, and how, and what you can and can’t do together.
No wonder your teen seems to be in a bad mood a lot of the time.
GRIEF and all of its friends
Life during quarantine and “shelter-at-home” looks and feels different from the way things used to be, for everyone in the family. Many of us, and our teens especially, MISS their previous life. For teens, these losses include their freedoms, their connections with others, their routines and their sense of safety and well-being. COVID has upended all of these things, and that’s a lot of LOSS. Some of us have even lost friends or relatives who have died from COVID-related illness and its complications.
Grief is how our brains are wired to react and respond to loss. And so, our minds and bodies do likewise. Grief affects how we think about ourselves and our circumstances, including the interpretations and conclusions we draw about the people around us and about their actions and responses to us. And more importantly, grief shapes how we feel about these things, priming our emotional responses in the moment to reduce the threat of further loss or the painful impact of an existing one.
Grief shows up in all kinds of ways, some obvious and others less so.
Is your teenager:
- Feeling more tired than usual lately? That’s grief.
- Feeling especially bored? Or acting irritable and grumpy? Or vaguely blah and disconnected? Or anxious and nervous for no particular reason? Or just kind of sad and discouraged? All are common reactions of GRIEF.
This isn’t to say that everything your teenager thinks and does during this time of quarantine is fueled by grief over all they have lost. But it’s helpful nonetheless to bear in mind that, behind some of your struggles together, both you and your teenager may be experiencing grief over losses you’ve have little or no means of preventing.
If you’re like most people, you’ve already had your share of fights at home. Maybe you and your teenager found a way to talk something through together, and you both came out the other side with a better understanding of each other. Probably you’ve had more than one fight about the same thing … and arrived at something like an uneasy truce, rather than a real resolution. Why would you expect the next talk/discussion/fight to be any different?
Or maybe you’re someone who tries really hard not to rock the boat at home. Maybe your teenagers seem too preoccupied [they’re lost in their own worlds, they wouldn’t even get it … or they’re so stressed out, you don’t want to poke the bear] to deal with whatever you’re going through, holding too tightly to their own convictions or prejudices to be likely to respond to you with reason and tolerance now (or ever?). So, you keep it all inside, maybe vent to your friends or spouse … but nothing really changes…
The truth is, most parents would rather know what’s troubling their kids than be left in the dark. And most teenagers would rather feel understood than misunderstood. Or ignored altogether.
All right, you say. I’ll maybe consider talking (again?) to him/her/them. But at least give me something to go on, you say, maybe some tips or strategies that would help.
GLAD YOU ASKED!
- Plan ahead
- Spend some time thinking about what is bothering you. Maybe it’s something someone else is doing, or not allowing you to do. Maybe it has to do with needing or wanting something that you don’t or can’t have. Maybe it’s something about the present situation that isn’t working out for you.
- See if you can put words to how you feel about it: “It makes me mad that…” or “I feel sad about…” or “I’ve been nervous about…”
- Consider the motives and concerns of the other person. See if you can recognize anything positive in their actions or position.
- Do you have an “ask”? Something you want or need from the other person? What is it that you think would make things better for you? If you aren’t sure, that’s ok. Sometimes it’s better not to be too focused on a particular solution, anyway, so that the other person can feel like there’s more room for them to contribute to the conversation.
- Approach the other person calmly and respectfully
- A good start is to ask if you and they could find a time to talk together about something that’s been bothering you.
- Consider writing a letter. You can end the letter with a request to talk about it together.
- Consider whether you want company when you have this conversation. Is there another person in the house, maybe a sibling or another relative, who you’d like to invite to the party, for support or because their presence might increase the odds that the discussion will go well?
- Be persistent. If you picked a bad time, don’t give up. Circle back later and try again.
- Focus on your experience and what you want/need
- Avoid blaming the other person. A good approach is to credit the other person with positive motives or concerns behind the actions or positions you object to. Here’s where your planning homework can come in handy. If you’ve thought about this ahead of time, you’re more likely to bring it into the conversation. Doing so leaves more room for the other person to respond positively and with less defensiveness.
- Be clear about your “ask” (if you have one) but leave room for the other person to respond.
- Leave room for the other person to respond fully
- You are trying to have a conversation here, not issuing a manifesto, an indictment, or an ultimatum.
- If things start to go sideways, try re-stating how you’re feeling (frustrated, mad, sad, nervous) and invite the other person to do the same. Try asking the other person to say why they’re feeling that way. Then be a good listener before you come back to your own thoughts, feelings and reactions.
- Leave space to think on it
- Rome wasn’t built in a day, and some issues take more than one conversation to reach resolution. If the other person’s response is not what you’d hoped, offer to step back and think on it some more.
- If you both become too mad to have a constructive conversation, then it’s better to disengage. But first, let the other person know that’s what you’re proposing to do, to take a step back and think on things some more before coming back to talk.
- Write down your thoughts and reactions. Go ahead and vent (on paper). Then, set the writing aside for a day or so. A surprising amount of very good problem-solving happens when we aren’t actively thinking about a problem. Later, you can reflect and plan. And when you’re ready, re-visit the issue with the other person. Have another conversation, flip the script, write another letter, let the other person know you heard them, but don’t be shy about letting them know what you think they may not have heard fully yet about you!
Arnett, J. J. (2009). Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, 4th Ed. Boston: Pearson.
Giedd, J. N. (2015). “The Amazing Teen Brain.” Scientific American. (June, 33-37).
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press.
Siegel, D. J. (2014). Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain. New York: Penguin Group.