Surveys show the pandemic is a mixed bag for adolescents in America.
By Jessica Grose
I have long thought that when it comes to being a parent in the pandemic, it might be the hardest for parents of teenagers. Parents of little ones can meet most of our children’s social needs, and our kids still kind of want to be around us. Not so for parents of teens. I recall with poignant shame what a complete nightmare I was at 16 when I was told, for various sensible reasons, that I could not hang out with my idiot friends. I can only imagine the epic battles that would have ensued had there been a pandemic raging, keeping me from hotboxed station wagons.
So in fairness to teens in 2020, this is a particularly difficult time to be young. “Pandemic conditions are at cross currents with normal adolescent development,” said Lisa Damour, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and the author of The New York Times’ Adolescence column. The most powerful forces driving development for middle and high schoolers are increased independence over time, along with being with one’s peers, Dr. Damour said, and the virus curtails both of those things.
But Generation Z is not a monolith — it’s made up of millions of individuals with very different backgrounds, personalities and life circumstances. Which explains why a handful of new studies have shown that the pandemic has been a mixed bag for teenagers, and that teens who are worried about their basic needs being met are more depressed than those who have more stable financial circumstances.
A survey of over 1,500 teens, collected between May and July of this year by the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution, found that, “The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower than in 2018, and the percentage who were unhappy or dissatisfied with life was only slightly higher.” The study’s authors suggest that the reason for the improvement in mood was that teens were sleeping more in quarantine, and also that a majority — 68 percent — said that they felt closer to their families.
Food insecurity was associated with the largest difference in depression. “Among teens who worried that their families would not have enough to eat, 33 percent were depressed, versus 14 percent of teens who were not worried about having enough food,” according to the study. This tracks with studies tracking parental mental health as well, as moms and dads who are concerned about meeting their children’s basic needs report the highest levels of stress.
Another survey of 1,000 teenagers from the mental health initiative WellBeings.org from early October is bleak. Almost 50 percent of teens said their mental health is much worse or somewhat worse than it was pre-pandemic. More than 50 percent said their social life is worse or somewhat worse, and over 72 percent said that the coronavirus has created a disadvantage for their generation, with climate change and racial strife cited as the biggest societal stressors for them outside of the virus.
I asked Dr. Damour what she thought about the disparate results of these surveys. First, she mentioned that stress is something that’s cumulative, not just for teens, but for everybody. “It’s impossible for us to say that Covid is X amount stressful for teens, because it’s entirely contingent on what other factors are at play,” she said. “If your family is impoverished or on the verge of poverty, Covid-19 lays on top of that. If your family is dealing with systemic racism, Covid-19 lays on top of that.” The universals that the whole country is experiencing, like the impact to teens’ social lives and schooling, can only be seen through the lens of the other stressors in their lives.
And the quality of a teen’s relationship with their parents is more important than ever right now, since we’re smooshed together for prolonged periods of time. “There are plenty of teens who get along with their parents and love their parents,” she said, as well as, “a lot of teens who have friction with their parents, or may not feel accepted by their parents for any variety of reasons. And for whom going to school each day and being around the ‘good grown-ups’ of school, were how they were getting through their adolescence.”
I asked Dr. Damour which issue she saw flaring up around teens that wasn’t getting enough attention. She said she’s concerned about a potential rise in disordered eating, because when kids have too much time on their hands or feel out of control, they may become more obsessional.
Additionally, if they’re only interacting with their peers on social media, that “can warp the sense of what people really look like,” Dr. Damour said, because they’re not able to measure someone’s manicured TikTok angles with how they might really look in person. There’s some data to back her up: Almost 50 percent of teens surveyed by WellBeings said weight, fitness level, general health or body image have a negative effect on their mental health.
Finally, I asked Dr. Damour what parents can do if they’re fighting with their teens about socializing. Not all kids are like my teen jerk self, who desperately wanted to spend her time in dank and unsupervised basements with poor ventilation — in fact, many teens are taking the virus incredibly seriously, and are more risk-averse than their parents. Dr. Damour said these are the worst kinds of fights to have — there’s no definitively right answer — and she advised that parents and teens try to do some role playing to see it from the other person’s perspective, even if it feels a bit corny.
Say to your teen: “Let me try to articulate it from your perspective,” and really try to express their point of view. You should even stop and ask, What am I missing? What am I not getting here? And then, allow your teen to do the same back to you. “It isn’t a solution, but it often paves the way to a solution,” Dr. Damour said, because parents and kids alike can get stuck in their own perspectives about the pandemic, and this exercise can get them at least a little unstuck. It won’t solve all your problems with your adolescent, though as I recall from being a teenager, only time will do that.
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