Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
A high school senior was feeling anxiety about returning to school. Since school ended precipitously in March she had become involved in social causes in her community and now school seemed like going backward instead of forward.
A recent college graduate was forced to return to his parents’ home when work ended in his chosen field. Discouraged, he appeared to have resumed adolescent behavior by sleeping or playing video games.
Reports are that colleges have now become the new hot spots for virus transmission since the recent return of students to campuses. Young people are described as disregarding the need for social distancing as they pursue social interaction.
Both young and old have felt the impact of the necessary limitations on behavior brought about by the spread of COVID-19. The end of normal school days has transformed children’s lives. Closing of workplaces and working from home has at the same time changed the lives of adults, particularly those of parents. Life in the new normal has elicited a range of emotional and behavioral reactions while taxing coping skills.
A major change for many has come in the routines of daily life. School and the work week began on Monday. Hours of meals, chores, and sleep, were determined by the requirements of daily living in the context of the larger social world. For many an internal clock developed in response to these patterns of life. One consequence of the changes brought about by life in the pandemic is the disruption of this internal clock.
An important aspect of maturation is the ability to make the transitions necessary within each day. Making such transitions is difficult for children and is particularly challenging for parents of young children. As parents we try to teach our children how to live in a world that has schedules, chores to be done and the need to comply with requests they may not like. Hopefully, as adults we have learned these lessons and growth and maturation have given us the ability to carry them out.
Young children do not yet have the skills needed to switch focus, to move readily from one thing to the next. They don’t yet have our sense of time or the ability to be future oriented. They are not thinking ahead about the next thing on the agenda, even if something they would like. It is frustrating to leave something that is pleasurable and they have not yet mastered the ability to tolerate such frustration.
Life in the pandemic has required a reordering of life’s transitions. This has been difficult for everyone, but as difficult as transitions are for young children, many older children approaching adulthood seem to confront a more profound challenge. The transitions at this stage appear to create a disruption of the developmental process. The transitions now faced are not simply within daily living but in the move from one life stage to the next.
The move from high school to college, from college to the work world are not only moves from one life stage to another, they are changes requiring steps in the developmental process. Significantly involved is the ability and assertion of independent functioning. It is this capacity for and expectation of functioning independently that is threatened by present life realities. This may feel more threatening to one’s sense of self than making more expectable transitions.
Young people are reacting to these disruptions with anxiety, regression and even defiance of presently required social behavior. The role of parents may be to understand the force of such disruptions and be available to offer support.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.