If You Think the Pandemic Made Your Teen More Awkward, Well Then You're...Right

In the welter of high-stress elements of Covid-era family living, our health-and-safety concerns often skew to the immediate, from giving birth during a surge to making sure everyone’s got a mask handy. But lately among our friends who are parents of teenagers, we’ve noticed a less urgent but still highly worrisome issue that we’ve traced back to pandemic protocols: Our teens are more awkward than ever.

Here’s an illustration: A mom and her 15-year-old teen son who had both been quarantining (WFH, remote schooling, and no unnecessary public gatherings) were easing out of Covid lockdown by dining at a patio restaurant. After the server departed with their order, the son muttered to himself “nice going.” “I asked my son why he ordered a Caesar salad with chicken, which is so unlike his usual burger diet,” she told me. “He said that he froze when he looked at how pretty the waitress was, so he just said, ‘I’ll have the same.’”

Awkward, right? And while a teenage boy who’s been locked in his room shyly stumbling over his words is cute in a John Hughes movie sort of way, this is just the tip of, let’s call it the Covid Awkward Teen Syndrome (CATS) for short. Moms of teens I spoke with are careful to distinguish this from the constellation of scary pandemic-era crises American youth is suffering, including remedial school performance, a spiking rate of attempted suicide and rising gun violence against people under 20. While clearly horrifying, those acute phenomena are happening at the same time as a subtler set of developmental delays that involve everything from communications skills to ordinary group socialization.

teens rusty social skills cat1
McKenzie Cordell

In our worst moments, we moms are asking ourselves: How is our kid going to develop “grit” (the parenting buzzword du jour) while solving tomorrow’s looming climate crisis when they are too anxious to get out of bed or meet someone new without first checking their vax card from six feet away?

A Loss of Hope

I exaggerate…and yet I wonder, are the kids alright? Elaine in Gainesville, Florida tells us: “Missing out on a summer school art experience in a big city two summers in a row nearly wiped out my 16-year-old’s kid's ability to believe that anything is worth hoping for.” Elaine is worried that Covid has demolished the on-ramp to adulthood that she, her husband and her kids had constructed, since now her 14-year-old has panic attacks and her 16-year-old battles clinical depression. “I think they have lost the ability to hope for something in the future, since the things that drove us as teens to dream—travel, moving to a big city and aiming high—these kids think ‘why dream if you can't go?’.

“Even if it's looking better right now, there could be another wave of Covid shutting things down again,” Elaine says. “I am not sure that kids even want to apply to college, since we've seen almost half of our friends' older siblings drop out or return home mid-semester because of Covid restraints at college making it miserable or not worth it, and the younger kids see this.”

Speaking of remote learning, even successful students had bullseye critiques of how their school district muffed it. “One of my sons said it was too easy to just open another tab and play a video game,” a parent of a San Diego teenager told me. “And my other son said it was really challenging, that he needed to try hard to get through class, even though he’s always excelled.” Indeed, research shows that remote learning has had a major impact (not in a good way) on teenagers’ social, emotional and academic well-being.

Early in the pandemic, author Paul Tough, whose book How Children Succeed is a primer on building resilience in children, noted that “the environment students are educated in matters a whole lot, including being able to form real connections with teachers and other educators…and students who are growing up in adversity are much less likely to be in class, and much less likely to have these intensive connected experiences that make such a difference for students.”

The Importance of Peer Relationships

Let’s look at peer relationships, both a balm and a bomb when it comes to developing self-esteem during the teen years. “Each of my two girls had a friends bubble of three to six kids that we allowed them to hang out with outside throughout Covid which honestly I think saved them,” Elaine says. But these intense personality clusters are no replacement for the skills of making new friends, little life lessons accreted over time in a school setting. One Santa Monica mom, Wendy, reports that her teen daughter was delighted to be in a pod with two other peers during lockdown. The three joked about their “trauma bonding”…until school re-opened and Wendy’s daughter was dropped by the other two. And here’s the special Mean Girls touch: the remaining two girls send her frenemy-style snaps from when they hang out together without her.

University of Virginia psychologist Joseph Allen has spent decades studying the teenage brain, and his research has shown that close teen friendships, especially with same-gender peers, are where youth practice intimacy and conflict negotiation, and they can even predict how successful adult romantic relationships will be. In other words, your teen’s lack of practice in the art of socialization and friendship-making can have a long-lasting impact.

You might argue that teenagers have always been a troubled bunch. But many teen parents report that the pandemic has ramped up your standard hormonal anxiety to disturbing levels. Wendy reports her daughter is worried about having even vaccinated guests at their home, since they might transmit the virus; she’s concerned that her daughter may be conflating a generalized anxiety of normal adolescent changes (such as starting her period and growing six inches in one year) with the pandemic. And our boy who stuttered at the waitress? His mom is working with him to manage a paralyzing fear of pandemic-inspired national economic uncertainty with figuring out how best to position himself for college.

What the Future Holds

“This will either make them stronger or the fears and anxieties will affect them forever like those dreaded Depression Era kids like my dad who were terrified of starving to death or losing everything at any moment,” Elaine says.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Moms of teens recognize the unique challenges these pandemic adolescents are facing and are sharing ways forward during these troubled, isolated times. Take the excellent 5-point plan for young adults making their way into a post-pandemic world from Julie Lythcott-Haims. (She’s the Harvard Law graduate who, during her tenure as undergraduate dean of students at Stanford, was so shocked at how her high-achieving young adults lacked basic life skills that she wrote the best-selling How to Raise an Adult.) Lythcott-Haims’s talking points are refreshingly lacking in rah-rah fluff and centered on actionable, useful tips to be read by and practiced by kids, such as practicing moving from a “set mindset” to a “growth mindset,” why they need to do chores and exactly how to behave in the workplace.

Other tips we’re leaning on include teaching distress tolerance to our kids, seeking out therapy when it’s useful, asking for help from our community, and above all, listening to our kids. Because the one thing all the moms I’ve spoken to agree on is this: We’ll probably never again get the same chance to listen to our teens as closely as we can now.

dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...