A therapist’s advice for helping pre-teens in a coronavirus lockdown

In it.
In it.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
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None of us were prepared for simultaneously juggling conference calls, parenting quarantined kids, and troubleshooting crashed servers as hundreds of millions of kids logged on to try and learn. Nor do we know how we support our kids as they grapple with no school, no activities, no in-real-life friendships, and no end in sight.

Phyllis Fagell, a therapist and counselor at an independent school in Washington DC, is an expert on middle schoolers, kids ages 10 to 14. She wrote the 2019 book Middle School Matters because she thinks middle school is a time where we can give kids tools that will set them up for life: good homework habits, skills to self-advocate and self-regulate, and the awareness they need to pick good friends, to take risks wisely, to embrace people’s differences and consider others’ perspectives, and to maintain creativity and confidence in times when either or both tend to plummet.

As coronavirus has led to school closures around the globe, I asked Fagell for tips on supporting pre-teens who are cooped up at home, away from their friends, and trapped with the parents from whom they are so desperately trying to break free.

Spoiler alert: It’s going to be hard. “It’s a unique challenge for this age,” she says. “Their social needs are so much greater,” she says, reminding parents that it’s often hard for them to remember how important friendships were in their own adolescence. Also: “There will be more conflict,” she warns. “There’s nowhere to go. You have to resolve it.”

As a developmental period, early adolescence is marked by a deep need to connect, belong, and fit in, as well as a need to solidify values, assert autonomy, find purpose, and have fun. To be a pre-teen in the time of coronavirus will require creativity and boundaries.

Fagell starts with the basics. While there are even more things out of our control right now than usual, some things remain firmly in it. We can make sure kids sleep, which means no devices in the bedroom. We can help them get outside or at least get some exercise, and we can encourage them to eat well.

From there, things get a bit fuzzier.

Bullying and being online all the time

Like adults, kids will be feeling stress, and they will be online more than usual. Fagell worries this is a potential recipe for more bullying and bad online behavior in general. Their isolation means many will feel they are short on material to share and discuss, and might cross boundaries in a bid to be more interesting: sharing someone’s secret, saying something inappropriate, picking on someone for something to do. Their empathy is still developing and their need to fit in and be funny might trump online ethics and commonsense boundaries.

“When you take kids that are in the throes of puberty, you throw them off their routine and put them in a situation where they have no sense of control, no certainty about when it will change, that’s a recipe for stress,” she says.  

Check in on their chats, and on how they are feeling, and make sure they are considerate to others who may be struggling. “Encourage kindness,” she says. Explain that everyone is stressed and anxious and may say or do things that aren’t helpful. “No one is at their peak.”

Kids will be on devices more than we want, and oddly, probably more than they want. Discourage them from passively scrolling through other people’s feeds–as much as is realistic—as that ignites FOMO and insecurity. Try limiting use to learning for school, and for prosocial and active uses: reaching out to those with more needs or following an exercise video, for instance. When you spot-check their posts, make sure they are appropriate and considerate. Fagell suggests that before kids post anything, they should sit on their hands for 60 seconds ideally, and certainly 10 seconds at a minimum, and think:

  • Does this have the potential to hurt someone else?
  • Can this come back and hurt my reputation?

And when they screw up, as they will, help them to learn from it. Ask them:

  • How do you think that post/comment made others feel?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • What can you do now to try and make things better?

Kids will naturally react differently to what is happening. The introverts may be relieved—they still have to manage social interactions online, but they get some welcome respite from the non-stop interaction of a regular day at school. Extroverts may hate what’s happening and look for as many ways as possible to stay connected.

It is a third group that Fagell worries about most: those who want to connect socially and who need the practice and interaction, but whose social skills aren’t so well honed. They perhaps offend easily, or don’t read emotions well. If that description fits your kid, be especially watchful. “They may have a hard time when it’s face to face, and they will have a tougher time online,” Fagell says.

Control what you can, let go of what you can’t

Fagell cites the work of Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who uses the image of a jigsaw puzzle as a framework for thinking about risk-taking in this age group. The edges represent safety, and parents set those. Right now that means staying home, and staying safe. But inside the puzzle, we hand over the reins. Let kids set their schedules, within reason. Maybe let them pick something to master, a physical or creative goal to hit. “Pretty much anything in the category of school,  extracurricular—that’s where we should let them practice, experiment, fail, regroup, and build resiliency,” says Fagell.  

“We want to be looking for these small ways to give them ownership and a sense of control, because kids who feel empowered are more resilient.”

Sleep, exercise, eating, and some learning are non-negotiables. But extra-curriculars? When they study? Which apps and games—YouTube, Minecraft, Duolingo, etc.— they choose to add to their studies? It doesn’t much matter, especially right now.

Another thing kids can control, or learn to control? Their emotions. Fagell explains the teen brain with an analogy to a light switch: There’s the prefrontal cortex, which manages reasoning and language, judgement, and empathy. There’s also the amygdala, the fight, flight, or freeze part of  the brain. The two operate like a light switch: turn on the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex shuts down, along with the ability to self-regulate.

“You have the power to flip the switch” she tells kids. Retrieving language helps to do that, so she suggests they come up with three adjectives to describe an object (a paper clip, a shoe, a binder—anything). Alternatively, she has them throw a ball a certain number of times to get their brain fixated on counting. (Small apartment? Use a balloon.) The goal is to get back to the prefrontal cortex and self-regulation.

And try to shift their focus to see what they can control. When Fagell recently spoke with a group of pre-teens, one said, “This whole social distancing does not meet my social needs.” Fagell validated those feelings, but then asked the girl what she liked to do. The girl said she loved art. Fagell suggested she make cards to send to senior citizens who are isolated and alone right now, and probably quite afraid. “She loved the idea,” Fagell said, adding she saw many nodding heads in the video chat. Instead of focusing on what the girl didn’t have, Fagell shifted the conversation to what the girl could give.

Other useful tips

There are loads of things, big and small, we can do for our kids, including:

Validate their feelings. This does suck. To say otherwise will prove we parents just don’t get it.

Avoid perseveration. Many kids tend toward perfectionism at this age. Set limits to what they do, just as a teacher would (i.e. do not have them work on a 45-minute assignment for two hours).

Set an example of how to shut down devices. When it’s done, it’s done. Go outside, do a plank, or Just Dance.

Take breaks. Schools are masters at breaking up the day. Replicate it as best you can. Try a YouTube break, snack break, exercise break, or five minutes of mindfulness.

Talk about times they faced challenges. The time they weren’t invited to the party, or when a beloved grandmother died, what did they do to overcome their grief? Remind them resilience is something that is built—and they are building it.

Practice mindfulness in whatever form it comes. Fagell says there’s a misconception that mindfulness means sitting quietly and meditating. Lots of pre-teens can’t do that. She suggests mindful activities like kneading dough, counting their footsteps as they walk, or focusing intently on the lyrics in a song.

Laugh at ourselves. Fagell’s teen son was trying to use the oven, and his brother filmed him looking into the exhaust hood for the “on” button. It was absurd, and it was funny. “If you look for the humor, we will weather this a lot more joyfully,” Fagell says.

Verbalize what coping looks like. Emotions are contagious, so set a good tone and articulate what you’re doing. Say things like, “I notice I have a very short fuse right now. I am going to do some deep breathing.” Or, “I am going to sit alone for a few minutes.” “This is an opportunity for them to expand their emotional vocabulary,” Fagell says.  Help kids think what they need to help themselves feel better—and know this is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of eternity.

Remind them that feelings don’t last forever. Kids may not be able to help feeling a certain way, but they are not defined by it, and they can learn how to manage it. If they are feeling jealous, they are jealous in that moment, and something led to that. They are not a jealous person. What can they do to minimize a negative feeling they’re experiencing?

Goals help. Have a treadmill? Suggest they increase their one-mile time. Challenge them to try standing on one leg for as long as possible, or to hold a three-minute plank. Have them keep a chart to see how they improve. Have them create said chart in a spreadsheet.

Bake. Kneading dough, as Fagell says, is a good way of getting out stress. Store-bought dough is totally appropriate here, but let’s be honest—there’s time to make it from scratch. Cookies can make a lot of things better, at any age.

One last note, about online learning

Adolescence is a period of hyper-awareness of status. Many kids will be nervous about “performing” online: Will they be embarrassed if they speak in class and mess up?  Remind them there’s only one way to find out: try. (As my kids like to remind me: FAIL stands for “first attempt in learning.”)

Remind them that their teachers are learning, too. Most have never taught exclusively online if at all; they are figuring it out on the fly and having to be quite open to experimenting and bumbling a bit themselves.

In fact, many teachers say they have never had to learn so much in such a short time. It’s an experience that generally involves experimenting more and showing more vulnerability. But they like that they are all in it together; many are sharing resources with one another and doing their best. Encourage kids to do the same. If they admit they need help, they might be surprised how many others will follow.

Fagell wrote her book because she thinks early adolescence is a unique period which a lot of people overlook. “I saw this as a lost opportunity, because middle school is the perfect time to learn how to experiment, fail, and recover, and kids this age are sponges and still open to input. I consider it the last best chance to get in there and parent,” she says.

Coronavirus amplifies the dynamics. We are parenting all day every day, with plenty of chance to mess up, adapt, and try again (apologies are useful—they are rampant in my house for sure). She warns that not all kids are going to easily roll with this. Anyone with underlying anxiety and depression will need to keep seeing a therapist. Parents will need to find support, too, whether from each other, from friends, or from a professional.

But she has faith we will be okay. “There’s no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect middle schooler. We’re learning as we go, and we need to be patient with our kids and with ourselves,” she says. This is hard advice for all of us, but also easy for them to digest: Let’s all just give ourselves a break.

“I do believe we all can emerge from this quarantine feeling stronger, more self-aware, and more connected to our communities and loved ones,” Fagell says. And after so much time together, we will emerge with some stellar conflict-resolution skills, a lot more self-knowledge, and a new, and maybe even improved, understanding of our kids’ ability to build resilience.