The stay-at-home orders and remote learning brought about by the novel coronavirus can be especially difficult for teens and their families to adjust to. The added stress and uncertainty combined with the reduced social group interactions can make teens feel anxious, less productive and more stressed. By leveraging mindfulness, reflection and executive function skills, parents can help teens adjust to their new routines. Furthermore, this can be an excellent time to work with your teen to develop healthy habits that will prove useful even after the coronavirus pandemic passes.
Adolescent Executive Function Skills
Executive function skills allow us to keep information in mind, resist distractions and think flexibly. These skills can be negatively impacted by high levels of stress, poor sleep schedules and inadequate diets. For teens, executive function skills have to contend with a more robust reward/sensation seeking part of the brain. When teens find themselves in emotionally hotter situations it may be difficult to engage cooler executive function control. There is a two-pronged approach to improving this emotional-cognitive imbalance. The first strategy is to strengthen the top-down cognitive aspect by creating the best conditions for these skills to operate in. This includes:
- Maintaining a healthy diet
- Getting adequate amounts of sleep
- Engaging in regular aerobic exercise
- Following a routine
- Building up to more challenging self-regulation situations
- Providing plenty of opportunities for reflection on one’s own thoughts, actions, and feelings
These practices are associated with improved executive function skills and furthermore, they carry other intrinsic benefits by themselves. To help facilitate these practices, try creating a schedule with your teen that incorporates set bedtimes, mealtimes and exercise times. Don’t feel pressured to replicate your teen’s previous school schedule perfectly, rather, take advantage of being home to push back wake-up times to a more reasonable hour, build in exercise at times that work for the teen and the household and create family mealtimes throughout the day that encourage healthy eating habits.
To create increasingly more challenging self-regulation situations, first assess what your teen is currently capable of. For example, observe how long they can delay gratification such as screen time and then work on exercises that slightly extend that period longer and longer. Another example is a game you can play at dinner time called don’t look at your phone. In this game, the whole family puts their phones into the middle of the table and the first person to reach for their phone to look at it is responsible for doing the dishes that night. If this is too difficult for your teen, try starting with a higher threshold, e.g., you can only look at your phone three times, and whoever looks at their phone four times must do the dishes.
The second strategy is to reduce the bottom-up emotional interference on executive function skills. For teens, the limbic system, a part of the brain most associated with emotional responses, is stronger at times than the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with executive function skills. This imbalance may lead to emotional reactions overwhelming the cognitive reactions and make it harder to respond appropriately to the situation at hand. You can reduce the impact of bottom-up emotional interference by cultivating mental strategies such as mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgement. Mindfulness helps train our attention to focus on moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings without dwelling on them for too long. Through mindfulness, we begin to recognize negative emotions as temporary states that will pass, thus reducing potential anxiety-producing rumination. Given the guidelines on social distancing, you can take advantage of a number of digital tools and apps that help teens begin practicing mindfulness.
Here is a list of apps to get you started:
One thing to remember, these apps and programs are not “set it and forget it.” Mindfulness meditation is a process and one that is best experienced together. Consider trying these apps alongside your teen and talking about your own progress. It is reassuring to hear that you struggle maintaining your attention for the entire meditation too! Furthermore, by practicing meditation yourself, you are putting yourself in the best mindset to help your teen.
For more information about mindfulness you can see our blog post here as well as this article from understood.org. If you are interested in the science behind mindfulness, you can visit the American Mindfulness Research Association here.
Planning and Routines
Working and learning from home is an excellent opportunity to help your teen develop healthy routines and work on goal setting and planning. Creating plans and monitoring the progress of these plans will help teens stay on task and productive. Sit down with your teen and create some SMART goals as described below:
Specific – Having a goal that is too broad or unclear leads to uncertainty as to if that goal has been achieved. For example, a goal of “being a better person” is less specific than “say please and thank you consistently.”
Measurable – To achieve goals, you need to be able to measure if the goal is met (e.g. the number of times you said “thank you”).
Action oriented – Goals should be something we can do and play an active role in.
Relevant – This entails understanding what someone’s own capabilities are and what they can/can’t achieve. Setting a goal too high can be unrealistic and lead to frustration.
Time-Based – Set short-term goals with achievable deadlines.
Come back to these goals over time and ask your teen to reflect upon their progress. Remember, these goals are not set in stone and their scope and deadlines can evolve over time. The point is to find a process that works, so don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough! After a project or goal is completed, come back and reflect upon the initial plan. Look at what worked well and what didn’t work well, ask your teen what they think they can change and improve upon next time.
- See: Working with School-age Children here!
- See: Working with Preschoolers at Home here!
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Stay tuned for tips on managing screen time!
About the Author:
Andrei Semenov is currently earning his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. His primary research interests are in how reflection and mindfulness training can help improve executive function skills. Currently, Andrei is working on a parenting program that promotes reflection and collaborative problem solving between parents and their children. Andrei has worked with the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing where he helped develop and evaluate programs that promote mindfulness for teachers and educators. Andrei earned his B.A. in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder where he studied how overscheduling children into extra-curricular activities may be associated with changes in their executive function skills. He has written and presented his work at academic conferences as well as in peer-reviewed academic journal