The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, March 24, 2020 1:00 am

Coping in a crisis

Help teens manage their COVID-related losses

Michelle Drouin

Today, I heard of a worrying trend: College kids posting photos of themselves on spring break — defying rules related to social isolation and mocking older generations for being too careful.

Swimsuit-clad and drinks in their hands, these Gen Y and Gen Z kids seemed to be saying, “Stay inside, grandpa! But we're healthy and ready to party.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic in full effect and sanctions mounting in both the U.S. and globally, there seem to be two camps emerging: 1) those who are growing worried and cautious about the chance of contracting or spreading the virus and thus adhering to social distancing, and 2) those who believe the concerns and sanctions are overblown and are still choosing to gather in groups, travel and live life as if COVID-19 were not an impending threat.

Teens and young adults seem especially likely to be in the latter camp. And from my perspective as a developmental psychologist, this makes sense for a number of reasons.

First, from a basic biological perspective, teens and young adults still do not have command of the full set of executive functions, especially those related to planning and considering consequences, that older adults have. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid- to late 20s, which leaves many teens and young adults prone to impulsivity and unlikely to consider consequences an older adult would easily contemplate.

Second, from a socioemotional standpoint, many teens and young adults are in the developmental stage of identity formation. It is critical for them to have the opportunity to discover who they are, set their own boundaries, and establish their own values and beliefs, apart from those of their parents.

They are often separating from their families, both geographically and socially, because they are developing their own identities. During this time, they may test rules and boundaries imposed by parents and other authority figures not because they want to be contrary but because they are trying to answer the fundamental questions of “Who am I?” and “What can I be?”

Third, many teens and young adults may feel like they are unique and invincible — this is known as the personal fable. They may believe no one has ever gone through anything like they are going through, and an illusion of invulnerability may make them believe the COVID-19 virus could never affect them. Again, this is a common psychological phenomenon, but it may make them appear self-centered and increase the likelihood of impulsive behavior.

So what can you do when your teen or young adult wants to defy government- or parent-mandated sanctions regarding COVID and social isolation?

Most importantly, it's important to have sympathy. Nothing like this has ever happened in most of our lifetimes. These teens and young adults are missing once-in-a-lifetime events, and there is no way to stop or rewind the clock so they can have these moments back. Let them talk to you about what they are missing and, instead of dismissing their concerns or comparing them to the death and despair caused by the virus, hear them, understand that these are big moments in their lives and let them grieve the loss of these opportunities.

Next, talk with them about ways to bridge the gaps between what they want in an ideal world and what they can have in the current climate. Couple your wisdom and knowledge of the ways of the world with their interests and use of technology to try to come up with creative ways to enrich their lives without having to see their friends and attend events in person. Be committed to this partnership in problem-solving, and be flexible about ways to help them feel connected to the events and people they feel they are missing.

Encourage teens and young adults to think outside of themselves. The more concrete your encouragement, the better. For example, you could model empathy and benevolence by writing letters to residents in nursing homes or assisted living facilities and have your teen or young adult join you. Or share with them a project you want to tackle around the house and express to them how important it would be for you to have them join you in the effort.

If you give them opportunities to help others, it may help them see beyond their own social woes and get a better sense of the bigger picture.

Finally, if you find that your child is exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety, reassure them they are not alone. If they do not feel comfortable talking to you, or if you feel that your child may be in crisis or need professional help, point them to trusted resources: Local mental health providers are gearing up to provide online mental health care treatment (check with your local health care providers).

Additionally, if they find they just need someone to talk to (and they are not in crisis) they can also connect for free with volunteers on websites such as 7 Cups of Tea and Crisis Text line.

Michelle Drouin is senior research scientist at Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation and a professor of psychology at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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