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By: Patricia Gail Bray, PhD

The month of May is usually a joyful time. Mother’s Day. High school prom. End-of-year concerts and theater performances. End-of-school parties. Graduations. The beginning of summer. There is a natural arc to the end of an academic year, and this pattern continues in many ways throughout our lives, even as adults. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all adolescents at a critical time in their development. Early adolescence brings the onset of puberty and brain development, which scientists regard as a transformative maturation process. How can we help them to continue positive development despite disruptions in school, friends, and family life due to COVID-19?

The first Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Brock Chisholm, was a psychiatrist. He was the one who famously argued that there is no health without mental health. Similarly, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for the education and health sectors to align for a whole child approach that includes physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development, which is attenuated now due to nationwide school closures. The health impacts are very real, including losing access to a safe place that provides not only learning opportunities, but also food, exercise, creative outlets, structured routines, extracurricular activities, and friends and adults who care for them. 

This sustained loss is especially significant for adolescents’ social and emotional brain development, including, for example, emotional regulation, self-awareness, social-awareness, empathy, planning, and decision-making. As teens strive for independence away from their parents, friends take on a key role. Socializing becomes an important part of their ecosystem developmentally, which is a very difficult dimension to recreate during stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements. The unexpected early ending to the school year, with rampant uncertainty and upset routines, leaves adolescents experiencing an acute sense of loss. In a recent survey at a local Houston KIPP school, eighth-grade students felt increasingly anxious and stressed. However, they also felt grateful and hopeful, reinforcing the idea that we can help them continue to develop cognitively and emotionally under less than ideal circumstances.

Extensive literature documents the inextricable connection between the mind and body. When we enhance the opportunities for adolescents to develop socially and emotionally, we see improvements in physical health and cognitive learning. It makes sense, then, to intentionally focus on building the social and emotional skills of our teens. We have adapted four overarching tips from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s COVID-19 framework that can help adults help adolescents:

1. Create a foundation for social and emotional learning (SEL). This is a trying time for families. With distance learning, the home environment takes on special significance. Most education sites are helping families transition to virtual education. However, many adults are not that familiar with SEL, so it may be necessary to explore these dimensions for yourself and then use that knowledge to help your kids strengthen their SEL skills. A few recommended websites for parents, families, and educators of adolescents include:

2. Attend to well-being and mutual support. Disruption due to COVID-19 is stressful for families.  Professionals recommend maintaining your well-being with supportive networks and self-care.  Then, help adolescents do the same, beginning with integrating good physical practices, such as the ones listed below, into daily life.

  • Encourage extra sleep
  • Help establish routines, boundaries, and schedules
  • Prepare nutritious food for planned meals
  • Incorporate cognitive learning in everyday activities, such as cooking
  • Be aware of the COVID-19 slide, like the summer slide
  • Monitor the websites adolescents are using
  • Engage in physical movement of any kind, including planned exercise together or alone
  • Plan regular interactions, such as nature walks or gardening
  • Achieve a sense of calmness through meditation, breathing, or movement such as yoga

3. Promote, model, and practice social and emotional learning for adolescents. Fortunately, more schools have integrated SEL into the school day. Since the crisis occurred, many approaches and best practices have emerged, with most recommending a dialogue that addresses loss.

4. Reflect on what works and constantly adapt and adjust. Public health and medical uncertainties, combined with political and economic disruptions, quarantine restrictions, school closures, and shortages of basic needs create profound challenges. Be open to constant improvements, especially since things change rapidly as we all continue to evolve.

During these difficult times, it is understandable that we all need social and emotional support. Many reputable organizations are providing mental health support through telehealth services.  Perhaps now is the time to follow Dr. Chisholm’s advice and realize that by strengthening adolescent mental health we can simultaneously strengthen their physical health.

About the author:

Patricia Gail Bray, PhD is the Founding Director of BridgeUp at Menninger, a program that aims to improve the mental health and well-being of vulnerable adolescents in the Houston area. Additionally, Dr. Patricia Gail Bray serves as the President of Westlake Health Consulting, LLC, where she provides health and healthcare strategic planning and leadership to philanthropic and non-profit organizations.

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