North Dakota State University Parenting Education Network hosted the fifth and final webinar in their five part series Parenting in a Pandemic. The webinars were led by Erin Walsh, co-founder of the Spark & Stitch Institute based out of Minneapolis, Minn. This session focused on understanding brain science so parents can help their teens cope with COVID.
The typical route through adolescence is not smooth even without the pandemic. Although vaccines are here and school is out, coming out of COVID is not a switch we turn on or off. It is a transition. The transformative teen years are probably one of the least well-suited ages for a pandemic. Teens’ brains are built for big feelings, independence, purpose, peers, and learning. They are not made for nor well-equipped for isolation. Your teen’s brain is still developing. Walsh related it to a construction zone, often unpredictable and bumpy. The more you understand why the bumps are happening, the more prepared you are to navigate them. The goal is to nurture resilience in your teen, an internal mindset that this may be hard but they can keep learning and keep going.
Think through the big and little things that go through your teen’s brain when they get up in the morning: what to wear, how many assignments, how to get to school, get organized for classes, remember homework, finals, time management, friends, etc. The very part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that is the “orchestra conductor” of the brain and manages all these big and little things undergoes construction right as kids enter adolescence.
In addition, there are emotional accelerators – testosterone and serotonin - that kick in during this same time. In boys, testosterone increases by 1000% in the adolescent years with an average of 7 surges every single day. In girls, when estrogen and progesterone go up and down, serotonin also goes up and down. Moods can change on a dime. If something would make you sad, a teen might be devastated. If something would make you happy, a teen may get over the top excited. Conversations can go from measured to explosive very quickly. For all teens, it can be just as confusing for them on the inside as it is to you seeing it from the outside. When you picture that the part of the brain that helps them manage these big feelings is under construction and the chemicals that amplify those big feelings are in overdrive, it makes total sense that COVID and beyond is a time of big emotional ups and downs. Understanding what is going on inside your teen minimizes the risk of losing your empathy. One of the major protective factors for kids in times of strain is being connected to warm and caring adults.
Communicate to your teens that your relationship can handle their big feelings. Offer them empathy. Mirror back what is happening. “Sounds like you’re really upset/sad/angry.” All feelings are ok. Try to name those feelings, both in yourself and your teen, and practice doing so. Do not leave your feelings up to their guesswork. Model naming your feelings to your teen. What is the feeling, what is the size of the feeling, what is the next step? We tend to want to fix the feelings and solve the problem. Skipping over the feelings makes the problem bigger.
Walsh quoted Fred Rogers, “Anything that’s human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know we are not alone.” Studies done in 2020 showed that over 60 percent of young adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, one in four young adults reported having seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days, and 7 out of 10 teens revealed they were struggling with mental health.
How do you know whether it’s mental illness or simply big feelings? Normally we have these big feelings and we move through them. With mental health challenges, the feelings don’t lift or go away; they don’t move past them. Over time, are there clusters and patterns or does the child have a history of mental health challenges? It is important not to overanalyze and yet not close your eyes to it. If your teen is struggling, listen and empathize. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t amplify or minimize. Mirror back their feelings and ask, “I have a thought. Do you want to hear it?” Give them options and seek help if you need to.
Teens crave independence and will push you away. Many teens give their parents the “keep out” sign. It’s part of growing up, so try not to take it personally. Empathy is the bridge for connection. Try to turn towards each other, not away from each other. In the pre-teen years a child has more together time with family than alone time. In adolescence, there is less together time and more time alone and with friends. Some parents react by increasing restrictions robbing teens of options and independence or pulling back all together robbing them of a coach that they need. How do we loosen without letting go? Get more creative with the connection time you have. Let them lead. Bring back parallel play, doing different things in the same room. Maintain your rituals and traditions. Check your timing; teens may want to hang out at night. Get some perspective and ask other adults in your teen’s life to “introduce” your teen to you and then believe them.
Teenagers want freedom, so give them freedom but with structure. Don’t completely let go of your expectations. Maintain boundaries where they matter most. Teens do well where boundaries are clear and rely on their parents to set them. For example, “Here’s the expectation, what’s your plan? When do you want to talk about it? Now or after dinner?” Give them options. Teens won’t ask for boundaries - their job is to push against the limit, find where the friction is. Children in early adolescence need a lot more coaching. Older teens can make choices. More choices gives them some autonomy. If it feels like everything is turning into a battle, decide ahead of time what your red lights (no-go no matter what), yellow lights (depends on the situation), and green lights (minor things that are not worth spending relationship capital on) are. For example, swearing at us may be a no-go, screen time might depend on the situation, and eye rolls are not worth making into an issue.
Look at their situation. Do you need to step in (messing up would have lasting consequences) or should you let them mess up a bit and then help them evaluate what happened? We can’t save them from every bad decision they make, but we can help them navigate them. You need to have the conversation as to how they are thinking things through.
Remember, you are not alone. The things that make parenting challenging and exhilarating in raising adolescents is part of their development, and it can be scary. If we knew it would all turn out ok, it would be easier to relax. The big feelings, the need for independence, the fierce pushing away is not personal, it’s developmental. Parenting teenagers is a delayed gratification activity. You may get an eye roll today, but it’s the 25-year-old that might come back and say, “You parented me in a pandemic? Thank you.”