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How a Teen's Frontal Lobe and COVID-19 Are Fundamentally Incompatible

Updated: Apr 14, 2020

The teen brain has a constant desire for reward, triggered by an increase in the activity of the neural circuits that release dopamine--a neurotransmitter responsible for that rush we feel while doing something exciting.

My 40 (cough)-ish year-old self gets excited at the thought of reading a murder mystery and taking a hot bath before bedtime. My husband just downloaded an app that allows him to do puzzles on his tablet and ordered a new part for our broken dryer on Amazon (calm down, the app is called "jigsaw puzzles").

In contrast, my 12 year-old loves to careen down the highest roller coaster at Carowinds, my 14 year-old plays a cutthroat game of volleyball, and my 18 year-old and his friends have been planning an epic after-prom party. They're loud, they're fast, they're moody, and they love drama. Exponentially more exciting than the scent of my new bath bomb, I realize.

Basically, it's developmentally appropriate for teens to be on the hunt for activities that are stimulating. It's a need, biologically-speaking.

However, in middle and high school world, 97% of "stimulating activities" consist of the all the behavior currently banned by social distancing. No physical contact. No school activities. No sports competitions. No prom or graduation. No movies, eating out, or congregating in public spaces. Spring breaks are getting cancelled world-wide, and sexual contact could get you killed, and not in the fun way.

My daughter said, "Mom, there isn't even anything to talk about with my friends! What am I going to tell them about? How I did my schoolwork, watched The Office and took the dog for a long walk? Am I going to tell them about how we ate chicken for dinner and finally found some toilet paper to buy?" She has a point. Nothing even to gossip about.

Our kids are feeling bored to a degree that my 40 (cough)-ish year-old self can't even contemplate. It's just not fun for them to clean out cabinets and review kindergarten sight words with their 5 year-old cousin.

So what are many of these teens doing to try to get the surge of excitement that more naturally occurred in pre-COVID-19 life?

They're arguing with their parents. Provoking their siblings. Eating 4,700 calories worth of snacks. They're sneaking their cell phones under their pillows each night, scrolling through Tik Tok videos for hours, then sleeping until 1:00pm the next day. They may have nicked a can of beer from the fridge, hit "buy now" on Amazon without asking your permission, sent an inappropriate text or scrolled through some porn sites. One day is blending into the next and they're simultaneously frustrated that there is nothing to do and infuriated by the parent who asks them to get off their butt and empty the dishwasher. Their desire to envelop themselves in endless YouTube videos, Fortnite competitions, and Snapchat streaks is fierce, and they're completely unaware that excessive technology usage is likely to make them more irritable and restless. And parents who challenge their behavior or pepper them with questions about their feelings or mood are likely to be met with exasperation or outright disrespect.

What can parents do to combat these circumstances while still maintaining the safety of the quarantine?


1) Encourage transitions. Even if it turns out that your kid is destined to watch 6 hours of TV today, at least try to break it up with other activities. This may include a going for a walk, completing a chore, making a snack, or taking a shower. While none of these activities are particularly stimulating, they do disturb the lethargy that can be exacerbated by monotony and couch-surfing.

2) Have two goals: purpose and kindness. Today's goals don't need to be big. They don't need to gut out the closet they've ignored for two years, complete all their college applications, or learn to play guitar. But their day should have some purpose, even if it's just to learn how to create a perfect cat's eye with their black eyeliner or sink 15 baskets into the hoop on the driveway. And ideally, that purpose should be accomplished with a modicum of kindness---helping dad unpack the groceries, making eye contact with mom during their conversation, or remembering to say goodnight before they crawl into bed. These goals should be talked about openly and apply to all family members.

3) Educate your kids. Read them this post. Give them some words to describe how agitated they feel. This pandemic is cheated them out of an entire season of their life, and it's understandable that they're reeling from the unfairness of it all. It's okay to validate their feelings, but it's also okay to require them to have a glimmer of self-awareness so they can temper their ugliest moods.

4) Create some structure...but not too much structure. Let them sleep in, but not so late that they can't fall asleep until hours after the rest of the house is quiet. Make them participate in caring for the house---some chores, some meal prep, and a basic awareness of preserving resources. Expose them to something educational every day, even if it's just a cool documentary, a song they've never heard before, or an opinion that contradicts what they believe to be true.

5) Take advantage of telehealth counseling services. You can't be a parent and your kid's sounding board all the time, particularly if you're struggling to adjust to the new "norm" that comes from having your kids home all day while trying to manage 100% of your responsibilities on a diminished paycheck during a world-wide recession. And really, your kid could probably stand to talk to an adult that's not you. Most insurance companies are waving co-pays, and many

mental health clinicians are responding to the need with flexible schedules and sliding scale fees.

While it's not helpful or productive to scare kids or teens about the life-threatening aspects of this still-unchecked disease, it is important that they have some perspective. They're not living in a third-world country with 10 family members in a shack without plumbing. They're teens who miss their friends, have annoying parents, but have all the comforts provided by unfettered access to the internet. As long as they stay healthy, both physically and mentally, they're going to be okay.

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