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(Still) in this together

Despite a flood of hardships for families, some teens have found a silver lining a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began

Photo illustration by Alex Cochran

Like a lot of siblings who are close in age, Kelsie and Taylor Wakefield, 16 and 17, have butted heads often. Over the years, feuds regarding who got the blue cup evolved into disputes over who got to drive the car. Unsurprisingly, their mom — Heather Wakefield — wasn’t sure how things would go when COVID-19 shut down their school and forced them to spend more time together.

But instead of bickering more, Kelsie and Taylor bonded over an unlikely shared project: a 1979 RV. Their younger brother, Adam, 14, found it in a classified ad for $300. In a time when school, dance classes, soccer games and basically everything else was put on hold, the Wakefield teens spent their time gutting an old house on wheels. They slathered on coats of paint, wired up an entertainment center and transformed the old RV into a grown-up clubhouse. Days spent sanding floors and reupholstering furniture turned into evenings streaming movies and telling each other stories. Through it all, the Wakefields discovered what has proven to be a silver lining in a very cloudy year: closer relationships between themselves and their parents.

Kelsie said she’s both surprised and pleased that she and Taylor get on each other’s nerves less since they started spending time together. “We’re better able to actually communicate and … take time to know one another.”

Tom and Heather Wakefield, fourth and fifth from left, walk at Kissimmee Lakefront Park with their children — Kelsie, left, Taylor, Adam, Lincoln and Xande — in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday Dec. 21, 2020.
Tom and Heather Wakefield, fourth and fifth from left, walk at Kissimmee Lakefront Park with their children — Kelsie, left, Taylor, Adam, Lincoln and Xande — in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday Dec. 21, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What used to look like discord and torment now looks more like encouragement and honest fun. In candid family photos, Kelsie and Adam are often side-by-side, grinning and making silly faces.

The family — who moved from Utah to Kissimmee, Florida, last year — spends their days hanging out on the beach, choreographing dances and making dinner together. But are they an example of pandemic-induced family dynamics or simply an exception to the rules of bonding during this past year of social distancing and staying home?

Jeffrey Arnett, an expert on emerging adulthood and senior research scholar at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, says families that have enjoyed stronger relationships amid the pandemic are lucky. That result is not a given.

The coronavirus pandemic and its resultant challenges only inflamed another public health crisis. Teen anxiety and depression had reached well-documented, epidemic proportions even before the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 6.3 million children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. When the National 4-H Council commissioned the Harris Poll to investigate adolescent well-being last May, the vast majority of teens expressed fear that the pandemic’s impact on their generation’s mental health would linger. It’s been tough for kids who aren’t dealing with a diagnosis as well. One collaborative international study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found clinginess, difficulty in attention and being irritable as common psychological conditions shown by all minors during the pandemic.

It took more than buying an RV and fixing it up with her brothers to make the coronavirus’ challenges bearable for Kelsie Wakefield. She said she’s battled depression since before COVID-19, which only made it worse. When school first closed, she spent most of her time in her bedroom — feeling withdrawn — until her parents took her to a doctor to address her mental health needs and find the right medication for her.

Kelsie Wakefield plays with one of her family’s bunnies at her home in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday Dec 21, 2020.
Kelsie Wakefield plays with one of her family’s bunnies at her home in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday Dec 21, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The strain to make the most out of a “new normal” has been a struggle for both younger and older family members. Over the past year, parents have been challenged to take on all roles, all the time, and meet their kids’ needs — no small feat by any stretch of the mind. But according to Salt Lake City psychologist and therapist Jenny Howe, “teens and their individual growth deserve much of the credit for forging stronger relationships.” Despite everything stacked against them, teens still found ways to connect with others and grow.

Research published by Stanford in 2020 found that teenagers who showed greater connectivity, or interconnectedness, in a set of particular brain regions were less likely to experience pandemic-related depression and anxiety. The results highlight the importance of the so-called executive control network, or ECN, in dealing with stress and adapting to new challenges. In short, more connectedness means better adaptations for dealing with stress. Despite the trauma of the past year, many teens — like the Wakefields — took “the opportunity to challenge themselves to take control of what they can, despite the circumstances, which has proven to be very powerful,” Howe says.

Heather Wakefield hugs her daughter Kelsie as the family walks at Kissimmee Lakefront Park in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday Dec 21, 2020.
Heather Wakefield hugs her daughter Kelsie as the family walks at Kissimmee Lakefront Park in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday Dec 21, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Individuals and families have developed coping skills that meet their own set of circumstances in a very strange time — and Heather Wakefield has been moved by the remarkable growth she’s seen in her children. She was especially worried that without the physical outlet of dance and sports, life for her high-energy children would devolve into chaos. Instead, Heather has seen Kelsie quell her conflicts with Taylor, tuck Adam under her wing, get in touch with her older sister Korde, and build stronger-than-ever bonds with her younger siblings Xande and Adam. For a mother, these are joys that take the sting out of challenges like moving during a pandemic and adding roles like “teacher” to her already task-filled life.

Maybe in a version of 2020 without a pandemic her children would have gone their separate ways more. She counts herself lucky that, despite it all, they aren’t only a stronger family now, but good friends, too, the sort who crowd into a clubhouse they created from a rusty RV.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.