Two teens together The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of adolescents in many ways, including missing or delaying important milestones. For high school seniors, most traditional events marking the end of their high school careers – such as prom, spring break, senior week festivities and graduation ceremonies – have been cancelled. High school students planning to attend college cannot visit campuses to help them make choices for their futures. For athletes, there was no spring season. And for musical and theatrical artists, there were no year-end or final performances.

Benchmark birthdays like quinceañeras, sweet 16s, and becoming a legal adult at 18 are being held in quarantine and related milestones such as parties or getting a driver’s permit or license may be delayed. Many summer internships, jobs and programs have been delayed – or potentially missed altogether – given our current social distancing measures.

The impact of all these delayed or missed milestones on our youths' well-being is still unknown. As researchers and psychologists, we are working to predict these effects and help support teens and families during this time.

Why milestones are important

Participation in activities – such as prom, graduation, sports competitions, and theater/musical performances – promotes positive change for adolescents. All provide opportunities to build and develop peer relationships – an invaluable developmental period as teens shift their social interactions from family-focused to peer-focused. Milestones are key to typical adolescent development, and it’s through participating in them that teens become more independent and develop the cognitive, social, emotional and academic skills to prepare them for adulthood.

Involvement on sports teams, extracurricular activities or holding a job can help teens develop and teach them about cooperation, planning and organizing their time, responsibility, and how to resolve issues that develop outside the home. Participation in these types of milestones helps young people develop more fully – intellectually, physically and mentally.

Missed milestones can impact well-being

Adolescents are experiencing other significant changes in their lives because of COVID-19, including financial stress, safety concerns for themselves and their families, educational changes, as well as social and physical distancing. These changes – coupled with disrupted milestones – may lead youth to experience feelings of loss, disappointment, sadness, anger, frustration and anxiety, all of which may be echoed by their family members who were looking forward to the same events.

Teens dedicate time and energy to graduate from high school, to compete in a sport, and to perform or display their art, and they may now perceive there is no reward for their hard work. Some adolescents may lose motivation to continue working towards their previously established goals and begin questioning whether they should continue their current path.

For others, there may be a sense of anxiety about these missed milestones, with teens questioning whether this loss will negatively impact their future. If teens are not able to work in the summer, the financial stability of their household may be impacted. Because they are not playing sports, teens are missing opportunities to continue their physical conditioning and participate in summer leagues – which could impact their potential for college recruitment.

For youth already experiencing behavioral health problems, these missed milestones are a concern. The cancellation of activities can reinforce symptoms of depression, such as sadness, low motivation and social withdrawal. Adolescent depression has been associated with lowered educational, social and behavioral health functioning into adulthood. It's not clear whether quarantine or prolonged social distancing measures may worsen this association for teens in the future.

Although we don't know the full impact the pandemic changes will have on adolescents' mental health, there are tactics we know can be effective in supporting teens during this difficult time.

Recommendations to help adolescents through the pandemic:

  • Validate how teens are currently feeling. One example of validation is saying, “You’ll get through this, but that doesn’t make it any less miserable right now.”
  • When issues come up, problem-solve with teens instead of for teens.
  • Encourage creative ways to celebrate milestones and connect with peers (e.g., hosting a virtual prom, organizing a drive-by party).
  • Give teens space while monitoring for concerning symptoms or behaviors.
  • Foster ways in which youth can continue to work towards their activities and goals. For example, continue to do exercises associated with their sport, creating art, or studying for a driver’s permit test.
  • Continue to follow research about how these milestones advance teen development and well-being and how missing or delaying these opportunities impact short- and long-term outcomes.

We thank Rashan Boyd, Athletic Director at A. Philip Randolph Technical High School, for his input for this post. Julia A. C. Case, MA, is a fourth-year clinical psychology PhD student at Temple University who is completing her psychology practicum in the Child and Adolescent Mood Program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

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Contributed by: Rhonda C. Boyd, PhD and Julia A. C. Case, MA