The Adolescent Experience in the Wake of COVID-19

By Michelle Hull, CEI Intern

Imagine, for a moment, that you are fourteen years old, sixteen years old, eighteen years old. Transport yourself to the entrance of your middle school. Remember what it felt like to walk into your favorite high school classroom. Access how you felt when an important concept finally clicked. Remember it all: The hunger for belonging, the hours spent thinking about your school’s social landscape, the moments when you started to build a sense of identity. Now, imagine, for a moment, that you are told school is closing indefinitely. The vibrancy of your daily life, with its joys and its challenges, is now relegated to a two-dimensional space: your online classroom.

The Development of Social Skills and a Sense of Identity

The adolescent experience is defined by two developmental tasks: The advancement of social skills and the formation of one’s own of identity (Volkin, 2020). These processes have traditionally taken place as we interact with family and friends. With very limited opportunities for adolescents to interact with their peers during COVID-19, they must reimagine ways to satisfy their longing for connection. Lori Gottieb, a bestselling author, therapist, and speaker, writes in her book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone that we change “in relation to others” (Gottlieb, 2019). School closures challenge adolescents to discover new ways of being “in relation to others” as they navigate unprecedented social dynamics and develop a more robust sense of self. Teachers and parents can support this process in a number of ways:

Ideas for Teachers:

  1. Online study groups
  2. Crowd-sourced community notes
  3. Communal discussion boards, group projects, student presentations, and peer review groups
  4. Check-ins at the beginning of class
  5. Outside of class spaces for community engagement (discussion boards, internal social media pages, and virtual events)

Ideas for Parents:

  1. Encourage online social events
  2. Plan virtual or physically distant celebrations
  3. Support the development of new hobbies
  4. Validate your teen’s feelings and concerns
  5. Remind your teen about other moments when they have survived and grown from challenging experiences

Intersectionality and the Adolescent Experience

Although all adolescents must discover new ways of being “in relation to others,” some students face additional challenges. Racial and socio-economic injustice is inextricably connected to COVID-19, exacerbating the trauma many adolescents are experiencing. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2020) published data highlighting the increased prevalence of COVID-19 in Black, Native American, and Alaska Native communities. Not only does this highlight the systemic health and social inequalities that have led to this reality, it exemplifies the heightened personal stress that Black and Indigenous people and other people of color are facing.

Moreover, COVID-19 is not the only crisis taking the global stage. The 595 police killings in 2020, and recent murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks have brought racial inequity into acute focus (Mapping Police Violence, 2020). Black adolescents do not have the privilege of only worrying about COVID-19. Instead, they must grapple with both the global pandemic and continued police violence, creating an unparalleled depth of trauma.

Adolescents living in poverty are also stressed in unique ways by COVID-19. Tamar Mendelson, the Director of John Hopkins’ Center for Adolescent Health, reflects on this in an interview with Samuel Volkins (2020):

The levels of stress and trauma in low-income communities are higher because the impacts are more severe—there is more food insecurity, housing instability, loss of family income, as well as higher rates of illness and death among community members. Adolescents in these scenarios have major barriers to receiving the support that their peers in higher-income communities are getting. Having access to Internet and technology is an issue—even in households with access, there may not be enough devices in the house for each kid. Older children may also be taking care of younger siblings. They may have less time and opportunity to do homework and concentrate on keeping up with schoolwork.

While adolescents share myriad concerns about life during COVID-19, racial and socio-economic injustices have created challenges unique to those that hold marginalized identities.

How to Relate with Others and Self

Despite the diversity of experiences that adolescents may be facing, the teenage years’ developmental questions remain central. How do I relate to others? How do I relate to myself? COVID-19 offers a tremendous opportunity to answer those questions in a new and innovative way. Although this moment in history is in large part defined by immense suffering, it has also created the opportunity for young adults to understand themselves and others more deeply. Teachers and parents have the opportunity to support adolescents in this journey, beginning with the commitment to continuing to show up, no matter how imperfectly.

References

COVID-19 in racial and ethnic minority groups. (2020, June 25). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gottlieb, L. (2019). Maybe you should talk to someone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Mapping police violence. (n.d.). Mapping Police Violence.

Volkin, S. (2020, May 11). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescents. Johns Hopkins University HUB.

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