How to help teens manage their feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic

Teens have different psychosocial needs than younger children. They crave autonomy and independence. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many teens are grappling with a new normal: e-learning for the rest of the school year, extracurriculars canceled and some milestone events — prom, graduation — being delayed, canceled or not exactly what they pictured in their minds. What can parents do to help their teens cope during this time?

Empathy goes a long way

The first thing to acknowledge is that if your child is feeling some sadness or anxiety, that it’s normal. If they are having a hard time focusing or feeling invested in their schoolwork at this time, that it’s normal. Teens are experiencing school and responsibilities without the “fun” aspects of it: They can’t see their friends in the hall or joke around before class starts. Their daily routine and the natural “flow” that accompanies usually helps them get through the school day. Extracurriculars and sports, which not only provide socialization but also structure to their days, aren’t happening. Parents can’t expect the same level of investment, excitement or motivation from their teens without the structures and fun that make the investment meaningful.

“Having empathy doesn’t mean that all structure, rules or expectations should go out the window,” said Katy Hopkins, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Associates, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “They are going to feel better if they do something with their time. Feeling a sense of productivity as well as belonging can go a long way to maintain and build their self-esteem during this time.”

Providing structure and ways for a child to feel productive and useful are good in chronic stress conditions. Homework, chores and spending meaningful time with family can help children thrive during this time.

How to deal with your teen’s loss of milestone events

Spring is normally filled with the once-in-a-lifetime events for young adults such as proms, graduations and those “last” moments with teachers and friends before moving up a grade or graduating. They are events that are often milestones that teens look forward to and use as motivation. It’s important for parents to acknowledge and empathize the loss with their child, while simultaneously providing them with encouraging perspective.

“It’s important to be very kind about the loss and how deeply disappointing it is,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Don’t diminish or downplay it. Encouraging them through it can give them the perspective they can’t see just yet. You could say, ‘I’m so sorry this happened. It’s big, and you will get on the other side of this. I don’t think it’s going to change your trajectory but if it does, I will be here to help you navigate that.’”

Parents also can remind their child they’re not alone in their disappointment: There are young adults around the world who are forgoing life’s big moments right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They are part of a cohort sharing this experience,” Dr. Hopkins said. “It can emphasize that they have a large community of others who understand their feelings: ‘You’re going through this with so many other young people. You’ll be able to share this experience with others, knowing it made you stronger.’”

How to be a role model with positive coping strategies

It’s a stressful time no matter how old you are. When there isn’t enough personal space for you or your teen, and you find yourself getting cranky: Remind yourself that this time together is an opportunity for you to model positive coping strategies.

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Positive coping strategies include finding emotional support that works for you, whether that’s happy distractions such as games or a favorite book or TV show, eating well, getting exercise and being kind and understanding under duress. Showing kids how to deal with stress in good ways now can help them throughout their lifetime. But remember, no one is perfect.

“We can’t always be the parent we want to be,” Dr. Hopkins said. “But there’s a lot to be said for asking for a do-over when you find yourself falling into bad coping mechanisms, such as being snappy. Apologize and explain yourself, but acknowledge it’s not an excuse for your behavior.”

Negative coping strategies such as withdrawal, substance use, mindless eating, taking your phone to bed, being sedentary or cranky may feel good or benefit you in the short-term, but these often come with short-term and long-term consequences that can make life more difficult.

What to do when you can’t hear ‘I’m bored’ one more time

What do you do when you’ve offered your teen 101 things to do with their free time and they reject every single one?

“This is something that teenagers do unconsciously. Instead of telling us how they feel, they externalize their feelings: ‘I feel it, now you feel it,’” Dr. Hopkins said. “There are a couple of ways you can help your child move forward. You could simply put a name to their feeling. Saying, ‘You seem helpless/sad/angry.’ Then simply state how it makes you feel. Naming and acknowledging emotions is extremely powerful. Empathizing in this way can be enough to have your child acknowledge it, accept it and move on.

“You also can decide not to take their bid: Say, ‘You’re smart, I am here for you when you need help.’ Giving them space may help them move on.”

Teens love autonomy and independence — two things social distancing can’t provide right now. If your child’s schedule is varying greatly, where they are staying up later and later and sleeping in later and later, you may want to ask if they simply need some privacy. Kids miss independence from family during this time; your teen may need some time that’s not under your watchful eye.

“You could negotiate some time that’s ‘off the clock,’” Dr. Hopkins said. “You can tell them that during this time, you won’t intrude on their privacy. Explain that they don’t need to keep different hours than the family to have privacy.”


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