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Quaranteen: Managing Teenage Mental Health During The Pandemic

Shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020, the term Quaranteen appeared out of nowhere as a hashtag on social media. It captures the collective woes of teenagers in quarantine during the pandemic. Parents have fondly adopted the word to describe the adolescent of the times. Indeed, they have front row seats to their turbulent experiences and have heard it all. “It’s not fair.” “Why can’t I just see one friend?” “You’re ruining my life!” If these, and other expletive phrases from your quaranteen sound familiar, you’re not alone. The pandemic has challenged everyone’s resolve. And it has been particularly unkind to teenagers across the globe. 

At the best of times, adolescence is a time of emotional upheaval. The sweet, easy-going child you used to know is still there, but also moody, confused, defiant, and prone to excessive sleep and reckless behaviour. And who can blame him or her? The pandemic has upended their daily routine of attending school; they are now physically separated from their friends, a phenomenon that is contradictory to their developmental needs; the classroom is self-directed and on-line; some have missed out on milestone commencement celebrations, and for others, summer job prospects remain grim. There is no end in sight and after months of lockdown and isolation, your quaranteen is burnt out. You’re worried but of course, you’d worry more if they ignored public health precautions. 

And therein lies the problem. For many quaranteens, the pandemic has triggered an increase in mental health issues. And parents are having a very difficult time navigating this matter. Emotional, mood and behavioural problems require you to connect much more deeply with your child. This is no easy feat at a time when they are also pulling away from you. To help parents gauge whether your quaranteen is experiencing normal stress, or requires intervention for a more serious mental health concern, let’s review what occurs during adolescence.

Understanding the Quaranteen Brain

Neuroscientists believe the maturation process of the adolescent brain spans twelve years, from ages 12 to 24. This period marks a burst of growth and development in the brain, unparalleled by any other stage in life. One of the biggest changes that occur during this time is an increase in the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps humans experience happiness. The adolescent brain creates an abundance of dopamine receptors, and with it, they experience heightened increases in the sensations of pleasure and reward. At the same time, they prune back unneeded neural connections and are driven to forge independent decisions, neither of which helps them follow prescriptive advice.

This dynamic forms the basis for why teenagers seek thrills and act recklessly for supposedly no good reason. It explains why, in Toronto, some teenagers attended parties at the height of the quarantine. To them, the reward of appearing “cool” to their friends, vastly exceeded the threat of exposing themselves and their family members to the virus. Such behaviour does not necessarily indicate that your quaranteen has lost touch with reality. In fact, they understand the negative consequences of their actions all too well, but they do it anyway. The chemistry playing out in their brain is a powerful draw that often compels them towards instant gratification. 

A common outcome of all of this is an argumentative teen challenging rules that don’t make sense to him or her. They may test boundaries, defy authority and assert their opinions in ways that adults can find disrespectful. It may seem like your teen is pushing you away when in fact, they need you more than ever. But how can you help?

The Psychology of Adolescence

In his bestselling book, Brainstorm, neuropsychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, dispels popular myths of adolescence as a time when raging hormones, an under-developed prefrontal cortex, and immaturity trigger teenagers to ‘go wild’. Instead, he summarizes four areas of adolescent development with the synonym ESSENCE.  Emotional Spark (ES), Social Engagement (SE), Novelty-Seeking (N), Creative Exploration (CE). With it, Dr. Siegel identifies adolescence as a period that offers young humans the ability to experience life to its fullest. 

Dr. Siegel goes on to hypothesize that the conflict and chaos occurring during this phase are by-products of young adults exerting their ESSENCE with incredible courage and creativity, in a constrictive world that functions with societal rules, law and order. And we can now add restrictions of the pandemic to this list. So imagine the frustration playing out within your quaranteen. They have no release for their pent-up energy and abilities. Furthermore, they do not have a language developed for what they are feeling. Sometimes, the confusing jumble playing out in their hearts and minds has no choice but to overflow like an erupting volcano. 

Rather than clamping down hard and forcing them to go against their natural instincts, Dr. Siegel proposes a compromise. By reclaiming some of the ESSENCE adults have outgrown and lost, parents could meet their teens half-way to empathically relate to their feelings. Understanding and validating their emotions is key to helping them develop their own emotional intelligence. 

Parent’s Mental Health

Without a doubt, adolescence is a tough transition for parents, too. During therapy sessions, we commonly find parents expressing grief. The child, who previously welcomed hugs now pulls away and is embarrassed to be seen with you in front of their friends. This can leave you feeling resentful and empty. You want your loving child back and it fuels the conflict with your teenager. And this strain can extend into the relationship between couples, too

However, in this matter, you must view your child’s behaviour through an evolutionary lens. Connecting with friends, rather than family, exposes your child to adventure. It prepares them for social independence, moving away and transitioning into adulthood. Your quaranteen is instinctively doing what he or she is programmed to when they seek out the company of others over you. It does not mean you are not needed. This is why we counsel parents to perform a self-check-in of your own mental health. You must first deal with the grief of your loss and herald in a new phase in your relationship with your young human.

Dealing with teens is tough at the best of times. And presently, the pandemic has made matters exponentially worse for many families. Adults are dealing with financial problems, job insecurity, ill and dying family members. When you add adolescent turmoil into the mix, it is no wonder why families are at breaking point. While we can offer many strategies to cope with the stress of the pandemic, we also encourage you to seek professional help. At the end of the day, to acquire the emotional bandwidth needed to cope with your teenager’s issues, your own cup must be full.

Transitioning Your Parenting Role

Have you caught yourself saying “He is so outspoken!”, “She doesn’t respect authority.“, “You’ve been on the phone long enough with your friend.“, “I don’t understand why you took such a stupid risk!“. In heat of the moment, parents apply negative labels to the very traits that constitute healthy adolescent development. In the above circumstances, could the teens respectively be self-assertive, an independent thinker, socially active and open to seeking new experiences?

Parenting roles must evolve during adolescence. This is a period to guide and harness, rather than stifle your teen’s natural abilities. This does not mean that parents should stand passively aside and let teenagers run amok, like a scene out of Lord of the FliesAdolescents still need firm parental handling. They also require boundaries and someone to reel them back in when they cross the line.  It is time to master the art of setting limits while avoiding power struggles that only fuel more rebelliousness.

You can focus on redirecting your teenager’s natural drive to make it productive. For example, channel an affinity for speedy maneuvers on the highway to safer alternatives, like rollerblading, biking or go-carting. This is also when you must relinquish authority to let your teen direct some of their own activities. While this is a tough one for many parents, it represents an important milestone in their journey to becoming independent and responsible adults. For example, during the pandemic, allow your quaranteen to self direct their on-line socializing time with friends, provided they complete their school work or household chores. 

Adolescence is the perfect time to help your child acquire financial literacy. You can allow him or her to manage their own spending with a debit card and limited funds in their personal bank account. Once they have learned valuable lessons in budgeting and saving for expensive purchases, you can build on this by giving them a credit card with a low credit limit. Here, they will learn how to pay their own bills and suffer interest rate penalties when they forget. Trusting your adolescent with small decisions and leaving them to learn from small failures, will give them space to spread their wings. It will also go a long way to demonstrate your faith in your child. And this, in turn, will help forge deeper connections.

Connecting with your Teenager

Even so, your adolescent may still withdraw and even reject your attempts to connect. However, they often remain conflicted about this issue. They still need parental support, guidance and involvement, even if they cannot express this succinctly. Deep inside, the transition from childhood into adulthood is a vulnerable period, rife with insecurities. Do not underestimate their immense desire to belong and feel accepted within their social circle. During this crucial period of pushed and pulled emotions, parents must hold steady. Your child needs you as a safe haven through their ups and downs.

Dr. Siegel’s insight comes through, once again, to help parents along. He has developed a handy series of 4 S’s to help parents understand their adolescent’s emotional need for connection. Your teen wants you to “see” them, not just physically, but also emotionally. They want you to understand their emotional experiences with empathy. Your teen also needs “safety”, requiring you not to harm them with your words and actions. To manage the volley of confusing emotions coming at them from all directions, they desire “soothing” which you can offer with understanding, validation and reassurance. And finally, every teenager needs a parent to help them feel “secure” with an internalized sense of wellbeing. 

All of these will come to define their resilience as adults. However, no parent could fulfill these attachment needs perfectly all of the time. In this matter, we constantly remind parents to just do your best. In fact, one of the best things you can do is model emotions, both positive and negative, in a healthy manner. Here, Dr. Siegel has coined the phrase, “Name It To Tame it”. Allow your child to witness you giving names to your emotional experiences. It will help decrease the intensity of negative emotions, thereby reducing unproductive eruptions of anger that could follow, had you bottled them up. 

Communicating with your Quaranteen

The pandemic has put you in close quarters with your teenager. Why not use the opportunity to strengthen your ties? Create a safe place for open communication, where your child is free to air their thoughts, feelings, dreams or musings. Your job is to listen without judgement, in an attuned way. The purpose is to acquire insight into their emotional wellbeing, and validate what they are feeling. 

Communicating in the manner does not often come naturally, particularly when your teenager is still a “child” in your eyes. Many well-intentioned parents jump right into problem-solving to help, instead of engaging in reflective conversation and validation. This invariably ends in adolescent reactivity, anger and regression. Imagine for a moment that you’ve disclosed a challenge to a friend. But instead of the camaraderie and support you were expecting, they point out everything you did wrong and what you could have done better. Would it not leave you feeling upset?  Problem-solving before acknowledging emotion often leaves teenagers feeling dismissed and invalidated.

In therapy sessions, we prescribe Emotionally Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) for parents. This evidence-based therapy helps parents become emotional coaches to their teenagers, by fostering the conditions needed for emotional connection. Examples include reflective queries such as “I imagine you are feeling disappointed and a little sad with missing out on Lena’s video chat yesterday?  That would make total sense to me, did I get that right?”  Such dialogue demonstrates empathy from you while helping your teenager to recognize words for her feelings. It’s important to note that even if you do not agree with your adolescent’s beliefs, you can still validate their emotions with understanding. Often, this is all they seek to diffuse tension. From there, your teen may even open up to consider your practical problem-solving solution.

Warning Signs of Adolescent Mental Health Issues 

Given the substantial changes occurring in the brain and limited ability to translate their inner emotional world into words, it is normal for teenagers to be upset, angry and withdrawn a lot of the time. The pandemic and quarantine may have even exacerbated all of this in many households. Without a routine, your teen’s circadian rhythm may be off and you witness them wide awake into the wee hours of the night but fast asleep until well past midday. Their dark mood and irrational behaviour may lead you to wonder if a deeper mental health problem exists. The following list includes examples of situations that exceed typical quarantine stress:

         Withdrawal from friends and family with no interest in socializing through video chats or physically distanced meetups

        Suicidal thoughts or behaviour

        Chronically anxious, wound up or on edge

        Aggressive outbursts

        Sleep disturbances that include insomnia and nightmares

        Extreme lack of energy and low motivation

        Persistent changes in eating habits

        Self-harming behaviours (e.g., cutting, picking, burning or biting)

        Persistent sadness that lasts 2 or more weeks

        Disinterested in fun activities or going outside 

        Preoccupation with fears of the virus and contamination that interferes with their daily life activities

        Repetitive or obsessive rituals (e.g., hand washing every hour without minutes)

        Switches between extreme bursts of energy and depleted low energy

        Rapid and disorganized speech patterns

        Auditory or visual hallucinations

If your teenager exhibits any of the above, contact your doctor even if you are unsure. Early intervention can be the key to mitigating long-term mental health problems. Your physician may recommend a psychiatric evaluation for mental health diagnosis. And if you are concerned that your teenager is at imminent risk of harm, call 911 or bring him or her to your local emergency department.

In addition to medical and /or psychiatric evaluation, your teen may require psychotherapy treatment, sometimes supplemented with medication. Beaches Therapy Group offers experienced and highly trained adolescent therapists and family therapists. We prescribe evidence-based treatments to help your teen and family. Presently we are conducting online video sessions and will resume in-person appointments once the health risk is lower. 

COVID-19 Quarantine: Harder on Adolescents

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, and particularly so on teenagers across the world. Like adults, your child has had to make do with restrictions and uncertainty. And they are less equipped than you to handle the stress.

In all likelihood, the pandemic will not be over any time soon. The social lifestyle constraints will continue as we learn to live with the virus. The impact of COVID-19 on this generation of quaranteens should not be underestimated. If you are grieving the loss of your sweet child, then they too are grieving the loss of an evolutionary pathway to adulthood. Teenagers will continue to grow, socialize and learn in the new normal. But their universe has fundamentally changed and many of the old customs may no longer be the way forward. If there ever was a time when teens needed their parents, it is now. 

We, therefore, hope this blog helps you forge a compassionate and healthy relationship with your quaranteen. If you require a confidential professional consultation about your situation, do not hesitate to contact us. The initial phone consultation is free.

We have helped hundreds of families and adolescents forge harmonious connections through a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.