Helping your teen through the strangest year ever

From The Heart of Texas Region MHMR

Most teenagers strive for independence, want to be with their peers, and are looking ahead to the future. Given this, how do we care for young people during this time, when they aren’t able to hang out with their friends and whose plans may have been cancelled or postponed by the coronavirus? Below are some strategies that might help to address these unexpected parenting challenges, especially at a time when many adults are struggling to hold it all together.

Make Space for Disappointment and Sadness

Teenagers everywhere are facing losses. Once-in-a-lifetime events, such as, graduations, sporting events, and proms have either been cancelled or drastically modified. Performances and competitions for which teenagers have been preparing for months, if not years, have been cancelled overnight. While schools and teachers struggle to get coursework online, gone are the clubs, teams, and other interactions that many students enjoy.  

Though we can’t replace what’s been lost, adults should not undervalue the power of offering empathy to discouraged adolescents. In addition to feelings of anxiety around COVID-19, teenagers may be feeling sad, angry, and frustrated about what has become of their year. Words of understanding or empathy might include, “I hate that you have lost so much so fast and I am sorry this has happened. You’ll get through this, but that doesn’t make it any easier right now.” When it comes to addressing painful feelings with teenagers, offering compassion can help pave their way toward feeling better.

Make Space for Relief and Joy

The same teenagers who may be feeling upset about missing school and their peers, may also express some feelings of relief. As much as they are grieving their losses, they may also be relieved at getting out of some commitments they never wanted to keep, or interactions with classmates, teachers or coaches that may have been negative in the past. We might say, “It’s OK to feel relief now too,” while reassuring teenagers that embracing the upsides of the disruption does not minimize what they’ve lost or their worries about the impact of the virus.

Expect Friction Regarding Their Social Lives

If you’re a parent who is sticking to the social distancing guidelines, your teenager is probably already frustrated with you, as some parents are still allowing their kids to hang out as usual. To address this we might say, “I know that other parents are still having kids over, but we can’t support that choice because it doesn’t fit with what the official safety recommendations are.” From there, we can let our teenagers know that when turning down invites they are free to blame us, and that if local safety guidelines allow, we’re open to their suggestions about how they might get together with friends outdoors, six feet apart.

When adolescents can’t see their peers in person, it seems only fair to loosen the rules on how much time they spend connecting online. But all bets aren’t off. Now, as always, rules are still in order to keep digital technology from undermining essential elements of healthy development. Sleep, productive learning, physical activity and face-to-face interactions (even if only with family members for now) should not be crowded out by life online.

Allow Privacy and Time Alone

Of course, few adolescents will want to spend all of their new at-home time with their parents or guardians. Teenagers who are formally quarantined, under shelter-in-place orders, or simply practicing social distancing will need and deserve privacy and time alone. Make it clear that you welcome your teenagers’ company, but don’t take it personally if they want you nearby but quiet, or if they want to spend time in some other private space in your home.

Think about approaching your teenager with an extra measure of thoughtfulness when making requests. For example, saying, “We’re going to need you to supervise your sister for a couple of hours, but we know that you have plans too. How should we do this?” might be a good place to start.

Treat Teenagers as Problem-Solving Partners

As we struggle to figure out new rules, systems and routines for daily living, let’s remember that adolescents are usually at least as resourceful as adults. Don’t hesitate to ask teenagers’ help. We could say, “We’re all having to invent new ways to arrange our days. Can you show me what you have in mind so that I can get a feel for your regular schedule and make sure you’re covering all your bases?”

The school year is ending, summer is nearly here and there is a lot we still don’t know about how that will unfold for our teenagers, but there are some truths about adolescents that can help us through this difficult time: they welcome empathy, they are resilient and adaptable, and they appreciate — and tend to live up to — high expectations.

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