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.
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.
No wonder your teen seems to be in a bad mood a lot of the time.
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:
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.
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.
Yellowbrick collaborates with adolescents and emerging adults, ages 16-30's, their families and participating professionals toward the development and implementation of a strategic “Life Plan.” An integrative, multi-specialty consultation clarifies strengths, limitations, and risks, and defines motivations, goals and choices.
A mental health condition that’s characterized by intense shifts in mood including both manic and depressive episodes.
People living with Major Depressive Disorder, or MDD, experience episodes of depression and sadness that are debilitating to daily life.
Those living with anxiety disorders experience high levels of anxiety and stress that interfere negatively with daily life.
A mental health issue in which a person’s cognitive function is impaired, resulting in symptoms like experiencing challenges with conducting speech, reading and writing, and behavior.
Mental health disorders that negatively affect a person’s behaviors, thought patterns, and function. People diagnosed with these disorders experience challenges with managing relationships and understanding various situations.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that people can develop as a result of experiencing traumatic situations, characterized by symptoms including flashbacks, avoidance behaviors, and more.
A mental health condition that is characterized by specific symptoms of forgetfulness and lack of concentration, which makes it challenging to complete necessary tasks.
Mental health conditions that interfere with a person’s eating habits, thought patterns, and behaviors in negative ways.
A mental health disorder diagnosable with the DSM-5 that is characterized by both obsessions and compulsive behaviors.