Isolated from peers, teens find new paths to community amid pandemic

Why We Wrote This

The pandemic lockdown is depriving teenagers of their social groups and casting a shadow over their college and job futures. How can parents help teens cope with the isolation and uncertainty?

Courtesy of Brenna Coughlin
Sisters Falon (left) and Morgen Doyle in Topsham, Maine, outside their home, in April 2020, one month into a quarantine. Both girls say they miss their friends and after-school activities, but they've found new ways to connect online.

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The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown to fight it are happening at the same time teenagers are seeking autonomy and trying to create their own identity.

Many middle-class teens and their parents express gratitude for their relative positions; they know some peers are in much more precarious situations. But, as time grinds on and the shock and novelty of lockdown wears off, they are also mourning what they’ve had to give up, from sports to dance to the daily eye rolls and jabs that are the nonverbal social fabric of adolescent years.

But Jeff Temple of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston says that teens are also finding new ways to be themselves and adapt, even if in isolation, and that parents play a central role in helping them navigate the uncertainty.

Key to that is shifting the dominating narrative about screen time and that it’s ruining peer-to-peer relationships. In fact, argues Dr. Temple, it’s the reverse. “They know how to Snapchat with their friends, and FaceTime and text, and that’s real,” he says. “And so that might be what saves them from the loneliness during this pandemic.”

Isabella Flood Wallin, a sophomore in the suburbs of Seattle, misses her freedom.

She’d take a bus to school and use it to move freely around the city, going with her friends to the International District after school for boba tea or wherever else she needed to be. But with physical distancing in place to fight the coronavirus pandemic, she’s sometimes felt like a “prisoner” inside her house – just at the time when “feeling parented is the most annoying feeling ever for me,” she says.

It’s affected her sleep. It’s heightened her anxiety – she remembers one night when her father, a surgeon, came home late and she convinced herself he was going to die. It’s aggravated her relationship with a younger sibling. Some of her friendships, all moved online, have flourished, but others have foundered without face-to-face contact.

“I feel it’s really elevated whatever emotions I was already having, especially anxiety,” she says. “You’d think with the more time you spent with your family that you would feel more connected. And I think it just hasn’t been true.”

Teens’ worlds have been turned upside down at the exact time that they are seeking autonomy and creating their own identity away from the centrality of their family lives.

Many middle-class teens and their parents express gratitude for their relative positions; they know some peers are in much more precarious situations. But, as time grinds on and the shock and novelty of lockdown wears off, they are also mourning what they’ve had to give up, from sports to dance to the daily eye rolls and jabs that are the nonverbal social fabric of adolescent years.

“Not only are they experiencing all the things that we’re experiencing, but we’re taking them away from this very developmentally critical time point in their lives where they’re supposed to be out of the house and developing these relationships and forming their own identity without their parents,” says Jeff Temple, professor and psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

He says that teens are also finding new ways to be themselves and adapt, even if in isolation, and that parents play a central role in helping them navigate the uncertainty.

Key to that is shifting the dominating narrative about screen time and that it’s ruining peer-to-peer relationships. In fact, argues Dr. Temple, it’s the reverse. “They know how to Snapchat with their friends, and FaceTime and text, and that’s real. And it’s something that they have been doing their entire lives,” he says. “And so that might be what saves them from the loneliness during this pandemic.”

Going online

Brenna Coughlin is the mother of two adolescent girls, Falon Doyle, age 12, and Morgen Doyle, nearly 17, in Topsham, Maine. And she’s helping to guide them by following their lead – something she has at times beheld with a sense of awe when it comes to their tech savvy. “They are so creative with their virtual world together,” she says – over FaceTime with her girls.

For seventh grader Falon, she misses having a steady stream of friends over, including her best friend, with whom she’d play outside for hours. But now they’ve shifted playdates to devices, doing riddles and personality quizzes. Sometimes they clean their rooms together online. For Morgen, a gymnast who recently got her driver’s license and the freedoms that entails, she misses the camaraderie of her team, but she and her friends now do their homework or make TikTok videos together.

This may have garnered a collective adult eye roll before lockdowns that have kept 1.3 billion students out of school around the world, but experts say that’s been misdirected. Strong online friendships more often predict stronger friendships generally. In a 2018 Pew Research Center poll, 81% of teen respondents say social media helps them feel more connected, not less, to their friends.

For Isabella, social media hasn’t always generated positivity, but it’s been key to coping now. She joined an Instagram movement called Girls of Isolation, founded by her favorite poet. It’s a collection of self-portraits in quarantine to empower girls. Isabella’s portrait was posted. “I think it’s been really powerful for me to see this is a worldwide thing, and that people everywhere are experiencing it, so this isn’t loneliness that is just felt by one person,” she says.

Peter Swanson, who knows teens well from his job as the former chair of the science department at Quincy High School outside Boston, says opportunities are everywhere now that structure is gone. An avid gardener, he is partial to earth-based projects. But whether it’s physical fitness or academic pursuits, it’s a unique time when students can define their own goals and interests without the pressures of achievement. “Here’s an opportunity for them to take responsibility for themselves,” he says.

Missing their peer groups

That’s not to say this is easy on teens, he says, especially those in at-risk social and economic environments.

A weekly poll in April by DoSomething.org revealed that young people said they feel frustrated (62.7%), sad (53.8%), and nervous (50.9%). Parents have watched changes in their teens that have been disconcerting.

Kathy Tonery, a special ed teacher in Pittsburgh and mother of three active boys, has watched her middle child, a 16-year-old social butterfly, close in on himself. “He generally is sleeping, sleeping, sleeping, and then he’s up all night. And I can tell he really misses that socialization. He doesn’t talk a lot, is very grumpy,” she says. “I try to let it go. You want to try and control everything and make everything better.”

But she knows she can’t, and experts agree parents are best off following their children’s leads and validating their feelings, however hard that might be. They should do it in their own moments of strength, not when they themselves are struggling.

For Julie Brazzell, another Pittsburgh-area parent, it’s what her boys have missed that hits the hardest in their home. Her eighth-grade twins missed their “graduation year” from middle school, packing up one day without realizing they’d not be back before the kids filter off to various high schools. Her junior is missing baseball season, a key year when he hoped to get some recognition that could translate into college scholarship money. “That was a gut punch,” she says.

She says she tries to refocus their attention on what they have: health, financial stability, and a new sense of togetherness. “Before, dinner was shoving stuff in a crock pot, and whoever comes in eats something real quick before we have to run somewhere else,” she says. Now there are family meals and game nights.

In the end, it’s teen optimism and open-mindedness that might be their best buffer in this extraordinary time period. Some might even realize that the academic environment is, actually, not so bad.

Seventh grader Falon, for one, can’t wait to get back: “I am most excited to go back to school. I honestly don’t care what class, as long as I get to see my friends, and my teachers too.”

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