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How to help teens come out of self-isolation?

Psychologist Kirill Khlomov shares his point of view

How to help teens come out of self-isolation?

Slowly, the period of self-isolation is coming to an end; most teenagers in the world have ended the school year; As usual, senior students will have exams and a choice of what to specialize in, a transition to the tenth grade, admission to the university. And we, parents, and teenagers are excitedly waiting for autumn and do not know what it will be like. But the current moment seems appropriate to take a look at intermediate results: how did teenagers cope with forced self-isolation? What losses and what gains did this result in? What did they earn and what did they lose? And how to help them return to social life? Let’s try to make a complete picture as much as possible. 

From a speech at the international conference “The Teenager in the Megalopolis 2020” Tigran Yepoyan, head of the ICT and health education department, HIV and health adviser at the UNESCO Institute, we know that this spring more than 1.5 billion schoolchildren from 188 countries of the world were affected by the epidemic; schools were closed, and all students were at home, essentially using tele-education. Involved parents, teachers, and adolescents faced great difficulties associated with the insufficient quality of the Internet, the lack of devices for accessing online lessons, the forced responsibility of parents to ensure the presence of the child at the lesson, and the decline in the quality of education. In some, especially economically vulnerable families in rural areas, parents have become much more involved with children, especially girls, in household chores to the detriment of education.

In total, about 80% of adolescents in the world observed self-isolation. The forced presence of children and adults in the same room and the inability to evade control and communication led, on the one hand, to increased cohesion and cooperation within approximately 85% of families worldwide, and on the other, increased the difficulties of living together in dysfunctional families. Adolescents from these families faced increased conflicts, aggression, and domestic violence, which were limited not only in their personal space and communication but also in access to educational resources and psychological support outside the family.

According to many studies, an important role in the mental and social well-being of a teenager is played by those adversities that the family has to cope with during his childhood. These hardships reinforce each other — for example, illness or the loss of one of the parents can lead to a deterioration in the economic situation of the family, which increases stress and the number of conflicts, people trying to resolve problems in frustration, can begin to use physical or emotional violence, which leads instead of resolving the problematic situation to increasing difficulties. Now it is important to take care of each other, which is facilitated by careful and caring treatment — this contact method is the most healing.

And yet, now almost all over the world, there is a gradual, slow resumption of a freer mode of life. How did teens endure self-isolation? A study by Common Sense Media showed that teens were largely concerned about how coronavirus would affect their family's lives: 61% of teens were worried that they or someone in their family would be affected by the disease; 63% were concerned about how self-isolation would affect a family's ability to make money. The coronavirus pandemic caused many teenagers to face their loneliness. About four out of ten teenagers (42%) now felt “more alone than usual”; another 43% of adolescents, despite being in the same territory with their parents, replied that they were "about as lonely as usual." Only 15% say they feel "less alone than usual." Girls more often experienced loneliness than boys. At the same time, 40% of adolescents say that they feel more connected with their families than before.

We, our team of psychologists from the cognitive research laboratory of the Center for the Development of Educational Systems of ION RANEPA, the Institute of Education of the Higher School of Economics and the Center “Crossroads”, are also collecting data now, the study is not yet completed, and we will be very happy for the participation of adolescents: they can answer questions online while maintaining anonymity. According to our preliminary results, approximately 90% of Russian adolescents abided by self-isolation. Did they learn something during the period of self-isolation? Yes, adolescents answer: they learned to appreciate lively communication, cope with boredom, play ukulele and guitar, began to learn new foreign languages, and so on. 

There are more than 80% of such adolescents — four times more than those who answered that they could not learn anything. What did the teenagers lack? About 65% of them report that during the period of self-isolation, they lack communication most of all — especially live communication with friends and classmates. This is quite in tune with the idea of adolescence, in which communication with peers plays a central role in personal development. In addition to communication, most of all lacked physical activity and the ability to walk. Many adolescents (about 20%, more often girls) were worried about their appearance, diet, and physical fitness, about as much worried about learning results. The main activity for this period, more than 95% of respondents indicated studying.

What makes it easier to cope with the self-isolation mode? Positive emotional state and optimism. What are some ways to deal with stress? According to our preliminary data, optimism among adolescents turned out to be related to the ability to positively reassess the situation in which the family found themselves, to accept responsibility for the possibility of change, and also to be prepared to plan solutions to existing problems. The older the adolescents, the more they are ready to take responsibility, and the higher their level of optimism. According to our preliminary data, it turned out to be that girls more often than boys use the strategy of avoiding, avoiding the problem [A3] as a way of coping with stress, that is, switching to another task when you encounter something too complicated.

What can be recommended to parents of adolescents now in order to simplify their family's way out of the regime of self-isolation into the outside world, which they missed, but from which they got withdrawn?

1) It is important to maintain physical activity. Is it easy for you to get involved in the load after a long pause? Hard? For teenagers, it's also hard. Physical movement, sports — that's what was missing. There are studies confirming the connection of psychological well-being with physical activity. Try to support — without coercion — joint walks, a small five-minute exercise (maybe on a walk or with someone through Zoom), sports games.

2) The loss of communication, which many studies talk about, remains very noticeable for adolescents. I think you can talk about it. Many teenagers, due to the constant physical presence of their parents, stopped communicating with their peers or limited themselves to chats, refusing phone calls, and video calls. You can tell them ways to restore communication, help them find the time and place to chat without your presence.

3) Most of all, people learn by “spying” one after another, rather than listening to “right ideas.” Mothers are the main developmental resource for adolescents, it is with them that the closest and most emotionally charged relationships are built, and teenagers learn from them in the first place. Three strategies are most constructive: a positive reassessment of the situation (what can we extract good from the circumstances?); willingness to take over and share responsibility for what is happening; joint preparation of a plan to solve the problem. Such conversations can be difficult; the most important thing in them is for the parent to resist strong emotions (anger, wine, etc.) and maintain stability. No need to start a conversation if there is no emotional strength or time; it’s better to arrange a conversation in advance.

4) Teenagers notice the social and economic difficulties of the family while discussing financial issues with adolescents is traditionally difficult. Often such discussions can be associated with emotional stress and feelings of all family members, especially if relations of power, security, and respect are realized through money in the family. Nevertheless, it is through a calm conversation about money and strategies for dealing with them that teens learn this side of life. Many adolescents are ready and willing to take part in the economic life of the family, it is important for them to master this skill, and the current situation can be useful for teaching analysis and planning of income and expenses.

5) It is important to talk with teens about their future, their plans, their ideas for building their lives. You can try to discuss these topics through their and your experience, through stories, examples, narratives of friends, talking about points of choice, complexity, situations of doubt, and uncertainty. As mentioned earlier, the main interlocutor with whom the teenager discusses his future is the mother. It will be great if you can connect someone from other adults who are interesting and important for a teenager to these conversations.

How to help us in the study? If you have a teenager (11-18 years old), you can help us by giving both surveys about 30 minutes of your time. You can answer easily just by choosing what suits you best.

This study is aimed at studying the well-being (including depression, aggression, and anxiety) of students in grades 6-10 and experiences while studying at home for the period of self-isolation. One of the results of the study will be informing educational organizations about the needs and psychological characteristics of students after they return to school after isolation.

The study is divided into two parts, follow the links: here and here

If you have any further questions or would like other information about this study or have any comments, please contact me by e-mail:

Kirill Khlomov, Ph.D. (Psychology), Senior Researcher, Laboratory of Cognitive Research, ION RANEPA

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