Blog Articles and Resources
Trapped in Adolescence
by Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
YOUNG CHILDREN MAY get a little stir-crazy and fractious with one another while being captive at home to prevent exposure to the coronavirus. However, at that age, they are more used to their lives being family-centered than are adolescents, for whom sheltering in place can be more severely disruptive on two counts.
First, adolescence is about gathering more social freedom out in the world, but this offline experience is now forbidden. Second, adolescence is about growing apart from parents and spending more time with one’s peers, but while trapped at home, family members become the only physical company they have.
With offline social life restricted by quarantine, it is only natural for homebound adolescents to seek more online options for compensatory contact and freedom with friends. Some parents may believe that this virtual contact provides a sufficient alternative to actual connection with friends, but it does not. Electronically mediated communication leaves out a lot of visual, nonverbal, and affective information that face-to-face contact more richly conveys.
Understanding Their CrisisThe pandemic represents a crisis, a simultaneous multiplicity of life-threatening changes that must be coped with and, we hope, survived. Crisis can be operationally defined as four concurrent kinds of change:
Just as childhood teaches the importance of building a trustworthy dependence, adolescence teaches the necessity for growing independence, and family teaches the lasting power of interdependence. As important as peers are to adolescents, it must be remembered that they are mostly of passing value when compared with family connections.
Confinement Creates IntimacyThe current crisis is a time to bring family members together. This can be a hard transition for adolescents to make, as they have been focused on growing their independence and individuality. To that end, a first unifying message from parents might be: “As stressful as it can be, a crisis is not a time for us to grow apart. It is a time to strengthen family because none of us are as strong as all of us.” Another hopeful unifying message might be: “We all have something to offer one another to weather this hard time. Let’s talk about what special contributions each of us can make.” Moving forward from these principles, specific tasks can assume a larger symbolic meaning for adolescents: Doing this shows how I’m helping my family carry on.
At a period of growth when adolescents need more privacy and separation, parents ought to consider what their teens might be observing of family life during quarantine, such as: It’s like taking a trip together in the family car, except it’s not a vacation; I feel marooned on a desert island with only my family; or Everybody’s getting on everybody’s nerves even more.
However it’s approached, prolonged confinement creates forced familiarity and more exposure to one another’s behavior. For this reason, the management of family quarantine is really the management of increased intimacy—the sensitive and vulnerable process of becoming more deeply knowing and being more deeply known. How best to manage that? I believe the best advice for parents and their adolescents remains to treat others as you would like them to treat you.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.