Helping Teens Return to Life “In Person”: Sunglasses Required!
Emerging from the darkness into the light is hard on the eyes. We cautiously shield our sensitive retinas with sunglasses, a visor or the cover of a hand, squinting until our biology adjusts to the increasing brightness. When we look around with recovered sight, what we see is beautiful and bright. Thank goodness humans are wired to adjust to new circumstances, navigating the changing sensory input which shapes our experiences.
We are emerging from the darkness. It has been a year of loss and trauma, as well as unprecedented security and protection from life stressors, COVID and non-COVID alike. Some developmental and growth opportunities for adolescents, but also challenges, have been postponed. Over the past year our teens have existed in a sort of stagnant space. While they are desperately missing the structure and stimulation of in person learning, craving social and physical connections, and chomping at the bit to run free from their families, re-entering a wide world of opportunity as well as demands, is also scary and a source of anxiety.
Just as our protective stress response systems adjusted to the impacts on life during a pandemic, the change and re-adaptation of a “return to normal” will elicit caution signals in our brains. Our primitive brain knows only that change of any kind requires a state of protective alert to navigate challenge and survive as a species. Let’s be ready to help the teens in our lives adapt through this final stage as the pandemic resolves and we re-enter the world, maybe a little different from how we remember. Here is what youth need from parents and caregivers now:
1) Normalize and validate the anxiety associated with change. Don’t assume that even though sentiments indicate celebration, that our emotions will entirely comply. For many, excitement will sit alongside anxiety and worry. Remember that everything has pros and cons. Just as we had to give up so much during the era of COVID, there are things our teens will lose now that they are returning to school, activities, and their social world. No more sleeping later than usual, school in pajamas, feeling safe at home from the scrutiny of cliques and pressures to perform at high levels across multiple areas of competence. C’mon parents, we have to admit, it has been nice not schlepping kids all over town from one activity to the next.
2) Cope Ahead. Help teens anticipate the next steps, imagine how these changes will shape their day to day as well as expectations or demands. Remember some things are still uncertain and in flux. Give them a chance to voice their feelings and perspectives about all aspects of this transition. Help them map out the steps they feel are manageable to take. Some teens will be ready to dive back in, while others may be reticent and need more time to adapt. When they express themselves to you, remember #1. All feelings and experiences are valid.
3) Be patient and offer support. If your teens’ readiness to re-engage is slower than you would like, take a step back. Elicit feedback from them to better understand what they may be worried or hesitant about. Every behavior has a function. The primary function of avoidance is to protect. This makes your teen human. Once you can better understand what feels challenging for them, you have the opportunity to collaboratively problem solve. Help them outline steps to get back in the groove and ask them what they need from you. Then celebrate tiny steps.
Our teens are suffering. Let’s offer them a helpful hand into a hopeful future.
Julie Baron, LCSW-C