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Op-ed

Inoculation: the answer to helping teens through COVID and emotional turmoil | COMMENTARY

Even before COVID-19 swept the country, closing schools and robbing teens of milestone moments, an epidemic of depression and anxiety was building among young people. Jean Twenge of San Diego University found that between 2005 and 2017, major depression in teens rose 52%; and in young adults between ages 18 and 25, it was up 63%.

Parents are understandably worried and asking how they can protect their kids against these troubling trends­. The answer in both cases is the same: inoculation.

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When the body encounters a virus, it relies on the immune system’s memory of prior viruses to activate antibodies, directing them to fight the current illness. If this is a novel virus, the body requires a vaccine — a small dose of the pathogen — to mount the necessary antibody memory response.

There is a similar system for mental health challenges. From lifelong exposure to small doses of disappointment, frustration and failure, we develop what you might consider “psychological antibodies,” which can teach the brain how to mount a robust defense to (even overwhelming) psychological challenges.

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We’ve seen news coverage of parents who reject the COVID-19 vaccine for their kids, based on their (mostly unfounded) fears of the long-term consequences of the shot. Likewise, there are parents who shield their children from the necessary doses of adversity — exposure to life’s hard knocks — that can help their young people fight off future stress. As my feisty grandmother used to say, “Every kid needs a bit of dirt in their diet.”

By over-guarding them from the disappointments of childhood — not making the soccer team, failing a test, not getting an invitation to a party — parents deprive their children of everyday opportunities to build up the necessary immunity to battle future mental pathogens. Those protected children are left more vulnerable when intense psychological hardships show up, like divorce, death of a parent, a major illness, or, yes, a year (or two) of a pandemic lockdown.

I see this all the time in my psychotherapy practice: well-intentioned, loving parents who call me (or bring their kids to treatment) in the hopes of prophylactically shielding them from painful emotions. Recently a mom called seeking therapy for her 16-year-old. Her daughter — a good student with plenty of friends — was crying, irritable and locked in her room since the breakup with her boyfriend. When I asked how long ago the breakup had occurred, the mom responded, “Yesterday.”

As a parent, I get it. And I could tell you stories of my own over-protectiveness as my children grew up. No one wants to see their kids suffer, no matter their age. We all hope our teens will have the resilience to respond with strength when the inevitable crises of life emerge. How robust a teenager’s defense arsenal will be rests on multiple factors, such as genetics, inborn temperament and family support. But another essential component is the practice they have had in dealing with life’s misfortunes — that is, their coping memory or immunity. How much resilience have they built up over time by dealing with the disappointments of day-to-day life?

Our desire to create a psychologically “germ-free” environment for our kids has affected many elements of daily life. For one, it has yielded the introduction of trigger warnings in the classroom. Teachers today are urged to warn their students that an assigned reading or classroom conversation may have words or ideas that the student will find emotionally disturbing and thus “trigger” a past trauma or painful memory. Yet a 2019 study confirms what most therapists know and psychological research on traumatic stress shows: Attempts to shield people from painful memories do not protect them from traumatic stress.

As a society of psychological anti-vaxxers, we have forgotten how astoundingly resilient children can be. We often deny them the experience and confidence that comes from overcoming a challenge, of transforming a difficult or painful situation into a successful one.

We cannot shield our kids from the slings and arrows of misfortune, but we can reduce their destabilization from more serious psychological events of life by inoculating them. This requires that we don’t step in too quickly when problems arise or offer answers and recommendations. We need to let them fight their own battles.

The more we allow our children of whatever age to experience small, emotionally manageable and repeated doses of life’s disappointments, frustrations and defeats, the stronger their adaptive immune response will be.

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And when the next blow strikes, as it most certainly will, they will have a more flexible, healthier way of coping. Their brains, strengthened by the inoculations of past experiences, will enable them to fight psychological trauma. I’ve been here before, they will say — and this, too, I can handle.

Kerry Malawista (malawistak@gmail.com) is a writer and psychotherapist practicing in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.


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