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Teenage in the Time of Coronavirus

How understanding your adolescent’s brain can help reduce parental anxiety.

My 16-year-old son just told me he’s been keeping a list of all of the movies he’s watched since the stay-home order began on our city. “It’s 38,” he offers, scrolling through a note on his phone. “And that’s not counting ones I’ve re-watched.”

I listen and offer a tepid smile, aware of the competing voices inside my head and the potential responses they might offer.

The Taskmaster is not so pleased, clucking her tongue as she asks, “That’s nice, but have you cleaned the bathroom yet?”

The Homeschool Teacher (a role all parents have been unofficially assigned) anxiously wonders, “That’s a lot of movies…do I need to check that you’re actually getting your homework done?”

The Über Mom in me asserts her over-caffeinated self, “But what about our whiteboard list of productive activities…like brushing the cat, jumping on the trampoline, playing Boggle, or writing handmade greeting cards for elderly folks stuck in nursing homes?”

(To this last one, my Lower-Your-Expectations Self wonders, “What white board?”)


My own anxiety as a parent is finding so many opportunities to flourish these days. With all of the usual social, academic, and external structures designed to keep my teenagers focused and on track at this point a hazy memory, it can feel dangerously like living in free fall. At other moments, it reminds me of being home with my newborns, when a trip to the grocery store was an occasion for a fresh swipe of lipstick and a tingle of liberation as my foot hit the gas.

The feeling of being hemmed in by social isolation, yet also responsible for taking control of the new daily routine, can be exhausting. As I talk with parents of teens in my practice, I hear the worry, doubt, and fatigue in their voices:

 “I don’t know if I’m doing enough.”

“Should I just leave her alone in her room all day?”

“I have no idea what he’s doing on his screen most of the time.”

“I feel so bad about all they are missing.”

“Will they be okay?”

Wyatt Zingus, used with permission
Teens and screens are inescapable during social isolation.
Source: Wyatt Zingus, used with permission

These threads are woven throughout so many conversations around me. For most of our high schoolers, especially seniors, there is so much loss — sports events, spring break trips, dance competitions, art shows, graduation ceremonies. But for the teens I work with, there is something else too —something that looks a lot like a huge sigh of relief at being sprung from that same track I just mentioned, the one that often leads them to feel stressed out and overwhelmed, with little flexibility or room to maneuver about at their own pace.

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