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Teens in quarantine: Some parents found surprising closeness during the pandemic

Jacqueline Medina of Millville, N.J. and her son Chase enjoy taking a break from his online schooling for a daily walk through the neighborhood. (Video: Joshua Carroll/TWP)

When his kids were little, Steven Ropes used to watch with bemusement as his neighbors’ garage door opened and closed all evening long. The family seemed to be constantly coming and going, shuttling teenagers to untold destinations.

Then Ropes’s six kids got older and his own garage door started getting a nightly workout. “We were in full swing,” says Ropes, a 53-year-old engineer in Duxbury, Mass. “Come in, go out, come back. It was nonstop.”

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But the beehive of activity ground to a halt with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

For much of the past year, there were seven kids living under their roof, including three foster children. Five of the seven are teenagers, suddenly trapped at home with family during that stage of life when they’re inclined to seek the company of peers over parents. And the shift — inherently filled with great challenges — was also incredibly sweet, say their parents.

“I feel guilty when I say what a gift it’s been for me,” says Jennifer Ropes, 50, a teacher. “But as a parent, oh my gosh, it’s been amazing.”

She loved watching her teenagers bond over basketball and card games and become one another’s support systems. And she loved the extra time and access it gave her to the kids, who took turns cooking and were at home to eat dinner together every night. Their daughter Sydney is a senior who will go off to college next year, and Jennifer thinks this period will ease that transition.

“It’s going to be emotionally really hard,” she says. “But I think I’m probably going to feel the most at peace when Sydney leaves, because we’ve had this time.”

Teen and tween years can be difficult for parents and kids; fissions naturally occur as adolescents become less reliant on their parents and more attached to their peers, says Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association. “Teens are biologically driven to seek independence.”

But some parents say a meaningful upside to the lockdowns has been increased closeness with their tweens and teens, both physically and emotionally.

Jacqueline Medina and her son were always racing by each other. Medina, a 41-year-old single mom in Millville, N.J., was racing to her job as a waitress. Her son Chase, now 12, was racing to school or to spend time with his dad or grandmother.

“We lived a pretty busy lifestyle. Go, go, go — all the time,” says Medina. “I never really got to spend that much time with him.”

But when schools shut down, Medina and Chase found themselves at home, together, day after day. “It was intense,” says Medina, who now works mostly weekend shifts to be at home on weekdays. “But I got to see him face-to-face more and interact with him more and be kind of like a stay-at-home mom. That’s what it felt like to me.”

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Their days revolved around his online school schedule, which Medina oversaw. But they also started taking walks and making meals together — and talking more, sorting through their feelings together.

“I feel like we’re struggling together, going through it together. And that’s the whole point — that we’re in this together,” Medina says. “It made me really be more honest with him about what I feel and what I’m dealing with and how I process things. Before I really wouldn’t be that open with him because it’d be so quick: ‘Hi.’ ‘Bye.’ ‘I love you.’ ”

And Medina says her candor made her son more willing to share his own thoughts. “He’ll be like, ‘Okay, this is how I feel. This bothers me, this doesn’t bother me.’ If they see that you’re present, they’ll be more present.”

Angeline Longshore of Maui, Hawaii, grew concerned about her 12- and 13-year-old sons at different points over the past year. One seemed to be struggling with online school. The other, normally an extrovert, became much more introverted.

Longshore says the advantage, if there was one, was that she was there to catch them in their struggles. The media consultant, 55, wanted to really understand what it felt like to be in their shoes. Rather than ask them directly — she felt sure that would be a dead-end — she sat next to them while they played video games, waiting until they started to explain what they were doing and then looking for small openings to draw them out further. She also joined all the social media platforms they used and started showing them funny videos she encountered, hoping they’d do the same.

“Then it was a shared experience,” she says. And in a way, she says, the whole pandemic has been a shared experience, one that they’ve survived together. “It’s that urgent element. It’s so visceral.”

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Prinstein, the psychologist, says that’s one of the sentiments he’s heard most frequently for families. The pandemic forced them to endure a major life event together.

“Usually the tween and teen years are times when parents and kids start feeling like they have less in common with each other,” he says. “But everyone had this in common. So there was not only an opportunity to share space and uninterrupted time, but to go through a really emotionally salient, scary, ideologically divisive time with someone who shares similar values and certainly shares similar stressors — and having to adapt together. It’s kind of been this amazing, grand opportunity to develop coping skills and to teach resilience, all as a family. That just doesn’t really happen very frequently.”

In Massachusetts, Steven and Jennifer Ropes can already feel their cocoon start to break open. This month the kids went back to school for the first time in more than a year. Vaccines are being administered, activities are picking up. But the Ropes family is hoping to find a way to reemerge that doesn’t put it back on the hamster wheel of teen activities and seeing one another only in passing.

“I really want to try to remember everything I can that helps me not jump back into the crazy train of constant sporting events, constant meetings,” says Jennifer Ropes.

“I don’t want to lose sight of just matching cards on the table,” adds her husband. “Just simple things like that.”

To Medina, in New Jersey, the increased closeness with her son is the pandemic’s biggest gift. And she thinks it came at the right time.

“He’s 12. He’s at that puberty stage where he needs to know that I’m there for him,” she says. “I think it woke me up a little bit, to his concerns and what he needs right now.”

And though other things are going back to the way they used to be, Medina predicts this shift will be permanent. “Now we have this rapport with each other, and as long as I keep it up and I’m consistent, I don’t see why it would not continue,” she says. “As long as I stay on top of it, it will just flourish, I feel, and grow.”

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More reading:

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