Teens and Isolation

Rachel Fruin LPC, CSAC
April 21, 2020

With the current “Safer at Home” order, some of us are feeling restless and developing cabin fever. This isolation, of sorts, may be the hardest hitting on our teenagers. According to Dr. Leon Hoffman, a contributor for Psychology Today, teenagers may have the most difficulty complying to the current order. While many were already connecting virtually to their friends, this often does not seem like enough.

While families get the chance to grow closer and support one another, adolescents often identify more closely to a peer group, to the point where they may be pushing away from their parents and not able to accept the support offered. Current relationships set the patterns for future relationships (1). With this in mind, now may be a great time to at least try to set a positive example with how you interact with your significant other and family members. While your teen likely will not acknowledge they are paying attention, they will notice! Focusing on what we want our children to learn and see may help us to have more of a sense of control in this time and to reduce our nagging or other unsuccessful attempts to give our children what they need.

According to Stages of Psychosocial Development, outlines by Erik Erickson, ages 13-19 necessitate the need to find out who we are. This is often done through observation and interactions with someone similar in age. We know from neuroscience that the brain is still developing well beyond these ages, as well, and is learning how to disseminate information and process interactions. When the format for this is virtual, especially when visual input is not possible, there is room for misinterpretation. The adolescent brain is always processing social information, wondering how others are perceiving them. When the main communication leaves room for interpretation, such as texting or even phone calls, anxiety and distress can easily follow. (2)

The brain is still developing the “socio-effective circuitry,” which helps to explore and classify social information. The emotional regulation capacities of the brain are still growing and developing as well, leading many adolescents to reach out to others to help them regulate.

Christopher Null, a contributor to Wired Magazine, shared his perspective of how the current circumstances are affecting his family. He noted how little tragedy his daughter had seen, by comparison, in her lifetime, making the current crisis seem perhaps even larger to her peers than to the older generations. In addition, many of our high schoolers are facing the fact that they will not be able to complete their rites of passage. Prom, something which many teens have been planning for months, is cancelled in most areas. They do not know what graduation will look like or will not have the benefit of the last day of school yearbook signing.

Since our teenagers need social interaction while still developing the ability to regulate but cannot go and hang out with their friends, how do we help support them?

While social media received quite a bit of negative attention for teens early on, there is evidence that this can help our young people to feel comfortable to disclose more of their selves and actually have a more cohesive relationship. Being able to connect online and see the tangible “relationships” on something like Snap Chat or Instagram activates our brains’ reward systems and may help our teenagers to feel less alone. (3)

With that in mind, online connection may be necessary, but not fully sufficient at this time. Here are a few ideas to bridge the gap. While they may not solve all of our teen’s feelings of loneliness, hopefully they can help.

  • Play: Start a virtual Game Night with friends and family, whether it be on a console, or via Facetime, both can help.
  • Pick up the phone: Call one friend each day. Since there is a greater risk for misunderstanding when we do not have visual cues, feel free to ask “what do you mean?,” if something our friend says is unclear, or if we are not sure how serious they are being.
  • Virtual Classrooms: Many teachers offer virtual chat time. Take advantage of this! Even though you may not be best friends with everyone in your class, it may help you feel like more a part of the whole.
  • Beware of what you post publicly: While we have many chances to engage in fun quizzes and online activities, there are hackers who look at posts to steal personal information. Parents may still want to help their children monitor this to help decrease risk.
  • Get out: Go for a walk, to the beach, hiking with friends (as long as social distance is being maintained). Fresh air and sunshine/exercise is huge to mood, as well as connecting with others.
  • Get a Job: Some places are still hiring and may be a good option to get some social interaction.
  • Game: Many online video game systems have a way to communicate back and forth, as long as you have a headset. While not the best, they can still work collaboratively and communicate this way.
  • Plan for the Future: We can also activate our brain’s reward pathway by anticipating time together. Plan a road trip with friends (if old enough to drive). Where will you go? How much will it cost? What do you want to see along the way? Where will you stay, etc. Even though you may not be able to set a date right away, planning can help to produce some positive emotions while you wait.
  • Know what is normal and what is not:

    I have seen many posts circulating around on social media comparing the effects of this order on introverts and extroverts. Some of the comparisons have depicted introverts as wanting to stay home, avoiding social situations, or wanting to hide and get away from others, not being able to enjoy themselves in social situations, etc.

    Introverts get energy from being alone to “recharge,” but they do not necessarily feel anxious around others or avoid all social contact. Having no motivation to get out and feeling stuck is a sign of depression, along with finding oneself being less active, or able to feel joy. If you or your family can see little future, feel on edge every day, or do not want to face the world, this may be a sign of something larger than just the adjustment to staying at home more often.

    In these events, please reach out for a professional assessment. Many therapists, along with our clinic are offering on-line services to assess and treat mental health challenges. This is still covered by most insurances and is very available.

To access services through HFM Behavioral Health, please call the main number at (920) 320-8600. We are here for you!

Resources

  1. Friedman, H. L. (1993). Implications for Health Promotion Across Cultures. Journal of Adolescent Health. Retrieved online 20 April 2020. https://www.jahonline.org/article/1054-139X(93)90191-Q/pdf.
  2. Somerville L. H. (2013). Special issue on the teenage brain: Sensitivity to social evaluation. Current directions in psychological science, 22(2), 121-127. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413476512.
  3. Spies Shapiro, L. A., & Margolin, G. (2014). Growing up wired: social networking sites and adolescent psychosocial development. Clinical child and family psychology review, 17(1), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-013-0135-1.
  4. Hoffman, L. (2020) COVID-19 Pandemic, Social Distancing, and Adolescence—Youngster’s difficulty complying with severe limits to in-person socialization. Psychology Today. Retrieved online 21 April 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beyond-freud/202003/covid-19-pandemic-social-distancing-and-adolescence.
  5. Erikson, E. (1956) Theory of Psychosocial Development
  6. Null, C. (04.06.2020) “The Reality of Covid-19 is Hitting Teens Especially Hard.” Wired Magazine. Retrieved online 21 April 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/covid-19-is-hitting-teens-especially-hard/.

Thank you to Brett Schulz, LPC for helping with the editing of this article.