While we find ourselves grappling with the new norms of our changing world, a return to a regular school year for our students is imminent. Youth are transitioning back to a traditional classroom-based academic year with regular school-based and extra-curricular activities. This transition is certain to have implications for resocialization and for the ever-shifting identity development that naturally occurs in childhood and adolescence.
School provides important opportunities for critical development, not only for academic advancement, but also for socializing, peer support, experiencing memorable events and moments, and self-expression. Certainly the increased isolation and removal from typical socialization that has resulted from the pandemic may have short- and long-term consequences that we still cannot fully know.
Adolescence is a period of individuation and autonomy, a time when teenagers assert their own independent identity and establish a consistent sense of self. Through this process, they grapple with the question of, “Who am I?” and rely on what is reflected in their peer group to derive answers to this question. Peer relationships are an important component during adolescence because they provide a foundation for social and emotional maturity, opportunities to be vulnerable and emotionally intimate, and lead to close friendships that serve as an important line of support. The quality of peer relationships evolve at this stage as evidenced by increased group cohesion, commitment to friendships, and loyalty, all of which contribute to a sense of interpersonal safety and protection among peer groups. In turn, these interactions are highly influential and significantly contribute to adolescent social-emotional development as well as cognitive developmental (i.e., problem-solving skills).
Given the importance of peer relationships and socialization during development, the social distancing experienced during the pandemic may elicit a broad range of feelings. Some students may feel excited and eager, others may feel nervous and hesitant, and many are conflicted with some trepidation because although they may desire to be amongst peers again, they may have ongoing concerns for personal or familial health and safety. Since teenagers have been without their daily face-to-face social interactions with peers for a substantial period of time, they may experience anxiety about how their peer group will reform. They may experience disappointment if they perceive their friend group has changed or that group dynamics have changed or been lost. The lack of daily routine, structure and authentic social connections can be unnerving, causing decreased focus and concentration, and more difficulty managing everyday stressors.
The New York Times uses the word “languishing” to describe the current emotional state of youth after the past 16 months, defined as a sense of “stagnation and emptiness,” lack of motivation, and decreased mental health. This term does not describe a level of clinical depression, but it does suggest that our youth are not thriving. The term suggests that many may have lost focus or purpose. Although we have all faced these changing times together as a society, our reactions and abilities to cope can vary greatly.
As our youth return to a regular academic year and to the process of resocialization, parents and family members can encourage children through several supportive strategies:
Maintain realistic expectations and remember that such transitions may be difficult
Observe for possible signs of distress, including mood swings, increased irritability, difficulties sleeping, and fears of missing out on peer activities and anxiousness around an increased need to fit-in, affiliate, and feel a part of a peer group
Create opportunities for open conversations and ask questions about how they are feeling about the shift back to school.
Humans at all stages of development are capable of being resilient and adaptive, particularly with the collective support of one another.
Annette Ermshar, CEO of Dr. Ermshar & Associates, is a clinical neuropsychologist and holds a Ph.D. Her Pasadena-based private practice focuses on psychological assessment and treatment, neuropsychology and forensic psychology, and she has served as an expert consultant for television and media.