Wired for connection

Deirdre McAliskey, National Children’s Bureau, and Brendan Bonner, PHA, explain why understanding teenagers’ brains can help us to support them during COVID-19. To view our complete series of COVID-19 blogs, click here.

A teenager useing her phone

What we’re asking of teenagers and young adults right now goes against everything their brain is expecting of them. 

The brain re-wires during adolescence. It works through all of its experiences, abilities and aspirations to date and decides which to take forward in life to make it unique and independent… of parents and caregivers! Typically, this development goes on until around age 24 or 25. 

Peer relationships are the priority. Connection with ‘like’ others, testing boundaries and exploring creative ways to make a mark in the world are all ways in which the teenage brain naturally evolves to become ‘adult’. Therein lies the problem with lockdown. However lockdown also allows us the opportunity to provide meaningful support and guidance to our young people.

Teenagers’ close friendships need to be maintained. They’re linked to increased feelings of self-worth and decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression in the short term. In the longer term, they are linked to better management of social and emotional development and healthy relationships. Working together to agree new, more relaxed rules about screen and phone time can help compensate for reduced opportunities to socialise in person, and demonstrate to teenagers that their feelings are valid.

Reassure and redirect

It is important to keep our communications with teenagers open and honest. Start with the basic principle that anxiety is completely normal and indeed a healthy function. It alerts us to threats and helps us take measures to protect ourselves. During the COVID-19 pandemic it helps us ensure to keep others safe as well.

Acknowledging and allowing feelings in a safe and supported way means we are less likely to ‘bottle things up’ to a point where those feelings seem less manageable. 

Young people may be dealing with disappointment, upset and frustration through social distancing or isolation. It’s ok to feel sad, and if you can let yourself be sad, you’ll start to feel better faster. Everything is temporary.

The key to recovery is how young people are supported to process their feelings. This will vary depending on their personality and nature. For some, creative writing in a diary could help. For others, talking online with friends and using their shared sadness can be a way to feel connected at this time. Practicing mindfulness, allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, knowing they are temporary can be a powerful tool to help us accept and validate our feelings. Practicing gratitude and showing kindness to others are also proven mood boosters. What’s important is to do what feels right for you.

Redirecting some attention and energy away from the virus and from lockdown is critical. Making plans, physical exercise, supporting younger siblings, calling grandparents, trying new things (even learning to use the washing machine!) can all help the world feel a little bit bigger than it otherwise might. If young people are interested in following the news, encourage them to develop critical thinking skills by fact checking the information they’re consuming, being curious about the positive impacts of social distancing on containing the virus and building up a short list of reliable sources for themselves and their peers.

Support independence and responsible decision making

Young people have a right to be involved in decisions which affect them and to sufficient information to support them in forming their opinions. The adolescent brain is, however, a strong opponent in an argument! It is thinking and feeling for itself, developing perspective and practicing decision making. Many of its early decisions however can be risky, ill-informed and even selfish. Becoming independent can be a very vulnerable time for young adults. Supporting that journey can be challenging for them and for us.

During lockdown, we’re all limited in our choices. Engaging teenagers in routine and rule setting can buffer stress and support brain development. Agreed schedules could include learning time, rest/reward time, household chores, family meal time and plenty of time to connect with friends. Enabling young people to exercise some control over that schedule will help them stick to it. Offering exclusive use of the kitchen or living room, even for half an hour, could boost feelings of independence.

Healthy habits include at least 60 minutes of moderate-vigorous exercise per day, nutritious meals and a reasonable limit on screen time. These improve mental wellbeing for teenagers. Sufficient sleep is key to overall mood and resilience to stress. The natural circadian rhythms of young adults are more nocturnal than those of children. Young adults will be alert much later in the evening than those they share a home with! Waking them up early in the morning can’t and won’t reset that clock. It typically just results in a shorter sleep! Teenagers need around 9-11 hours of good quality sleep to consolidate the memory and learning they need to engage in positively with others and, particularly, with education. Accommodating a 10am or even 11am start to their day - trading off for some chores and study time - is an attractive proposition to explore while we have the chance. Consider it the silver lining of these strange and challenging times!

Useful links:

UNICEF 6 Strategies for teen mental health during this temporary new normal

Parenting NI – Parenting support charity in Northern Ireland

Parenting NI Podcast: Teenagers and the pandemic

Young Minds tips and guidance on coronavirus and mental health

Child Mind Institute guidance on supporting young adults during COVID-19

Information on family support services in Northern Ireland

PHA blog on family time during COVID-19

To view our complete series of COVID-19 blogs, click here.


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