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How to help kids and teens cope with this time of social distancing

An expert explains why teens resist quarantining, and what to do when kids can’t focus on schoolwork

Ellen B. Braaten is co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at MGH.
Ellen B. Braaten is co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at MGH.MGH

We’ve wrapped the third installment of Taking Care, a series where mental health professionals join me for public Zoom conversations about social distancing, coronavirus-related anxieties, and how we’re making it through this unsteady time. In this episode, I talked to Dr. Ellen Braaten, co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at MGH.

I asked her an hour’s worth of questions about how young people might be processing their experiences right now, and how parents can help. Below is a very edited transcript of the conversation. To hear all of the questions — many of which were sent in by readers — watch the video. You can sign up for the next installment of Taking Care at globeevents.splashthat.com.


Taking Care with Meredith Goldstein featuring Dr. Ellen Braaten
Meredith Goldstein and Dr. Ellen Braaten discuss how we can stay healthy with our families during this difficult time.

Meredith Goldstein: I’ve heard that teens — and even people in their 20s — might be desperate to go out right now because their brains can’t actually process risk. Is that true? Is that the reason we saw people in their early 20s partying in crowds, unwilling to cancel spring break?

Ellen Braaten: The part of our brain that is responsible for what we call executive function skills — our ability to organize, plan ahead, sense danger — is the prefrontal cortex. And that doesn’t really develop until we’re well into our 20s. Also, this is an age — teens and early 20s — when you’re looking at your peer group, you’re looking to others, and you’re stepping away from the boundaries that your family put into place.

MG: My friends who are parents are trying desperately to keep schedules for their kids. Sometimes they’re failing and feeling awful about it. Are schedules necessary or even possible right now?

EB: I think you’ve got to talk to your kids about what they can expect from a schedule. But I also think that parents should be thinking creatively about schedules. Maybe this is the time to sleep in a little bit later and start your day at 10 a.m. and have a great breakfast with your family [first].


MG: We have a question from a reader who says her kindergartner doesn’t want to do any homework. Is this something to worry about?

EB: I’m just going to be very realistic and say that no, it probably isn’t. There’s a lot of reasons why a 6-year-old might not want to do the work. It could be too hard for them. It could be that they’re anxious about it. I think for a 6-year-old, the best thing you could do right now — the best thing anybody can do right now — is just read more books. None of us read enough anyway. Don’t let your child off the hook. Don’t say, “Well, OK, if you don’t want to do it ... .” Say, “Either you’re going to do this, or we’re going to read for the next hour.” You don’t want to give them the opportunity to just do nothing.

MG: A reader asks for help for a child who’s lost a parent to COVID-19.

EB: One of the things to do is to reach out as best you can to others, and to talk a lot about how this grief might go on for longer than it normally would. But try to reframe that a little bit. In the future, we’re going to remember dad again. This is not the end of things. I think that that can be very frightening for kids — to not have a marker. This is an opportunity for us to really think about what Dad would love; it could be a trip to your favorite place that you went as a family, it could be gathering people together in August or next year. But thinking about the future, while talking about the present, [that’s] what needs to be done. And it’s hard to do. And it’s hard to get through your own grief if you’re a parent, grieving your spouse, and then also trying to make these decisions and talk about very difficult things with your child. It’s also important for you to get your own help with this.


MG: What does it mean when a young child begins to mention coronavirus during playtime. I have a friend who told me her kid was building a town, and people in the fictional play town were affected by the virus.

EB: Kids work out their anxieties and their frustrations through play. It’s really a good thing. What they’re showing you is that their unconscious is dealing with this in a really appropriate manner that helps them work it out, and helps them feel some sense of mastery over this. It’s really important.

MG: A lot of teens are missing out on big moments. Prom, graduation, etc. What do you tell a teen who’s really miserable?


EB: I think empathizing with the fact that they might be grieving right now. They might not think of it as grief, but it is. Validating their feelings, validating their disappointments, listening to their worries, too, and just talking about loss to them. If we don’t talk about the fact that graduation isn’t happening this year, they’re feeling like maybe it wasn’t that important to begin with.

As always, send your Love Letters questions to loveletters@globe.com. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at meredith.goldstein@globe.com. This interview was transcribed and edited by Goldstein and Globe correspondent Grace Griffin.