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Anxiety ahead? Tweens, teens need extra support as they re-enter world of school 

Perspective | Year of isolation was a major developmental disruption.

Anxious teens and tweens: In my household, I’m the lucky one who actually leaves the house to go to work. 

Before I head out for the office, I wake my young teen to say goodbye while she is still in bed. 

Her room is ocean-floor dark thanks to blackout curtains — of her choosing. You can’t tell the time of day, or the season, so it’s pretty much the room ambiance equivalent of our disorienting COVID times. I kiss her forehead while wishing her a good day, by which I mean one where she gets dressed, eats something healthy, moves around a little bit, and maybe even turns on her camera during class. I am  happy if she achieves any two of those four things. Many days it’s zero. And never is it all four. 

It’s not uncommon to return home from work and find my daughter exactly where I left her, appearing not to have moved an inch in the nine-hour gap. 

As we adults know and often choose to forget, a primary task of adolescence is to learn about ourselves and others, by varying degrees of torturous awkwardness, in the wolf pack that is our school system of choice. We are meant to slowly fledge, leaving the nest by going to this one place to help us grow away from our parents, but not by much. 

This past year has inverted that equation, testing the limits of what that can look like, to grave ends. One national study by America’s Promise Alliance found that of 3,300 teens surveyed, nearly one quarter reported having no connection to adults in their remote learning environments. An equivalent number said the same thing about peers during this time, which is as surprising as it is concerning, considering that the remote model was founded to keep connections maintained in both of these areas of life. But as many of us have experienced, and this study attests, this hasn’t really worked out so well.

As we lean in to the prospect of returning to the routine of an in-school experience that includes getting dressed, fed and out the door, what can we expect of these kids who have now lived a full year without such regular life habits? And without any recent memory of the social excitement (and also pressure) which acts as a crowbar to catapult kids out of the bed into the world? What can we expect of teens, who, by their hormonally charged nature are given to long spells of lassitude on the best of days, after a period that has been more like a lazy long weekend with extra homework than a bona fide school year?

This isolation, lack of nonfamilial connection and absence of social relationships and rites have gone on for so long that our teens have in fact grown out of old habits and have formed new ones. Ones that might not be healthy and may be hard to undo.

We know in the field of psychology that how we show up for (and with) our kids in their current malaise as well as in the transition back is paramount. In part this is our job, as it always is as parents: to help our kids find their way through the difficult emotional labyrinths of their lives. But today we have to carry out these tasks sensitively and smartly, since none of us had been prepared for a nationwide cataclysm to strike out of nowhere, and to be so derailing, and to last so long. In other words, we are hard-pressed to lead our kids, our anxious teens and tweens, when we ourselves don’t know where we are going.

But lead we must. Our developmentally disrupted kids are not only individually anxious. They are in a situation that is itself mercurial and anxiety-driven. They need us to show them how to get back to normal, even though such a thing hardly exists and changes day by day. As much as we parents may not know our way through this mess, we do have skills and faculties that our teens lack, such as self-awareness, long-term perspective, past experiences of surmounting hard things, a fully developed frontal lobe to help us organize and strategize, and most importantly, the emotional maturity that comes from being a regulated adult in the world, and a caring adult in the family. 

Anxious teens in an anxious world

So what should we parents be thinking about with our anxious teens, in an anxious world, as we contemplate heading back into our respective school buildings (in our own time)?

    • We are likely to need a clear head and a lot of humility as we venture into the trial and error of finding what works for us and our child or teen (which, by the way, might look nothing like what works for your neighbor’s kid or your sister’s family). 
    • We would do well to keep in mind that some of our kids will show worsening signs of anxiety or depression as we head back to public gatherings. In these cases, it is recommended to seek out supports or professional help immediately.
    • And we will likely want to talk to our kids about how they feel about the vicissitude of things that reopening suggests. This unprecedented year is something that we adults can put into some kind of perspective in the course of our much longer lives. But for kids this is a speed bump in their critical growing years, and a big one. Because of this magnitude, our kids will need our help to understand that getting “back to normal” isn’t a finish line that we will soon cross, but a process that is only now beginning. Inviting discussions on how your kids feel and answering their specific questions and concerns in these early days will likely give you a better handle on how to respond to your child’s individual needs from the get-go.

Let’s try to remember to go easy on ourselves — and our kids — throughout this reopening process. For if there is one silver lining to this year, it is that we’ve all learned to be less selfish and more flexible. These attributes can assist us in our time of worry and school-return stress. And applied to our kids, these same qualities of flexibility and generosity can also help our anxious teens who need a lot of empathy and support as we begin to take these small, shaky steps together, headed in the direction of returning to school, whenever that is, and whatever that looks like for you and yours.

Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

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About the Author

Liz Covey

Liz Covey, LMHC, is a psychotherapist and parent coach based in South Seattle.