The Planned Schedule
When social distancing and home school started, you probably set up some type of schedule to maintain a sense of structure for your teen. For many families I work with, the schedule looked something like this:
9am: Wake up, breakfast, get dressed
10am-noon: Work on school assignments
1-2pm: Get outside or exercise
2-3pm: Finish school work
3pm-5pm: Help out around the house
6-?: Leisure and family time
The Actual Schedule
Six weeks later, here is the ‘routine’ many parents have observed their teens falling into:
Anywhere from 11am-2pm: Wake up
Breakfast, get dressed? NO.
Noon-3pm: On the computer/phone (hopefully for school)
3:15: Raid the fridge/cabinet for snacks
5pm: Dinner with the family? “I just ate!”
6-?: Who knows, they’re in the bedroom (please be doing school work)
2:30am: Bedtime (maybe)
So parents ask me “what is going on? Why is my teen so unmotivated, tired and irritable despite all this free time??”
The Scientific Explanation…
The answer is “Allostatic Load,” or the damage done to our bodies and minds when we are under chronic stress.
Each time you:
– read or watch the news
– check social media
– talk about the pandemic with your friends
– think about the potential economic fallout
– try to plan for the future
Your body gets another dose of stress hormone. This puts you in a constant state of ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ where your brain is scanning the environment for threats.
So you might think that staying home and turning off the news would help you ‘recharge’ (and give your teen a relief from the drama and bustle of high school). But in fact the reverse is true: lengthy social isolation also activates your body’s stress response.
Humans survive as a species by coming together in communities and developing social connections. Before social distancing, you and your teen had dozens of small social interactions each day. Each one sending a message to your brain that “you’re okay,” because the social network appears intact. Being alone sends the message that you are vulnerable to attack, so your lower brain stays on ‘high alert.’
The Simpler Explanation…
Basically, your allostatic load is like a big pile of bricks sitting on your brain all the time. Your body is tired because your BRAIN is working overtime, and this is true for your teen as well!
Sleep problems, irritability, depression, fatigue, lack of motivation and avoidance are all normal reactions people have under chronic stress. The body is responding to a traumatic experience by shutting down everything not needed for survival. Instead of tracking how much time your teen spends on Snapchat v. school work each day, focus on making sure their bodies and brains are receiving input that things at home are safe and secure.
How You Can Help
So how can you and your teen cope with this ‘new normal’? You don’t want to create tension at home by constantly nagging. But if your teen falls behind with school work that will just make things worse.
Here are two first steps you can take to get yourself and your teen back on track:
1. Validate your teen’s response. In order for the brain to move forward with problem solving, you have to accept the messages it’s sending that there IS a problem! This means it’s okay to feel your feelings! Allow your teen to experience their sadness, disappointment, anger, and stress. Then let them know it makes sense all these feelings are happening. (You can even use this post to explain the brain science behind it!)
2. Focus on the basics. When your brain feels unsafe, it can’t do anything else until the body’s basic needs are met. This means balanced eating, plenty of sleep, staying hydrated and taking frequent movement breaks. Inflammation increases fatigue; this happens when we sit still for long periods of time. So encourage your teen to start the day with some kind of gentle physical activity. Examples are taking a walk together, helping make breakfast, 10 minutes of stretching.
Laying a foundation of safety and emotional connection at home reduces the amount of allostatic load your teen is carrying each day. This dramatically increases the chances your teen will have enough mental energy to start and complete school work on their own. And you might even see them help out around the house!
Want your teen to be more self-sufficient and take greater responsibility for their own emotional and physical health? Our DBT skills group helps teens learn the skills needed to reduce their own allostatic load. Practicing self-care and coping with stress are essential life skills your teen will need as they move into adulthood.
For more information, check out or DBT skills group page HERE.
This blog post was written by Sophie Dykstra, LCSW-C, CSOTP. She runs a DBT Teen Skills Group every Wednesday evening.