Many teens and tweens are rightly worried about the economic, social, and health-related dangers associated with the novel coronavirus. For some, the impacts are clear and concrete: someone they know has contracted COVID-19 or saw her job disappear overnight. For others, the risks seem abstract, as sickness or financial distress loom only on a distant horizon. Either way, they might feel an acute sense of isolation, fragility, and powerlessness. These fears and anxieties are pervasive, and constant streams of news and social media exacerbate their stress and uncertainty.
Our teens and tweens have been directly impacted by the coronavirus. Social-distancing directives and stay-at-home orders have upended their educations, social lives, rites of passage, and job prospects. At the same time, young people are confused and unsure about how to respond. Often they put on a brave front and minimize, displace, or deny their feelings.
As the weeks turn into months, one question has become critical: How can parents support their teens and tweens during this pandemic?
It’s a given that teens and tweens will find a great deal of information about the pandemic online and from their peers. Parents can help them by clarifying what is currently known about COVID-19, sifting right from wrong, and providing the perspective and wisdom that come with age.
Of course, teens and tweens need age-appropriate ways to gather and understand the news and how their lives are affected. Older adolescents are cognitively and developmentally able to understand more than their younger counterparts, so parents can be more direct and forthcoming when sharing information.
Younger adolescents need more filtered information. Parents can remind them that social distancing, going to school online, and other safety precautions are only temporary; doctors and scientists will let us know when we can all see our friends again. Without increasing their fears and worries, share enough information so they understand health risks and follow current recommendations.
As teens and tweens come to terms with the pandemic, expect a range of emotions such as confusion, anger, and sadness, before they reach a place of acceptance. With so much loss in their lives, they may experience significant grief. Parties, proms, final performances and sporting events, graduations, and summer vacations are cancelled. Proximity to friends, teammates, teachers, and significant others is no longer possible.
For parents, it’s important to recognize that sadness is often masked by frustration, irritability, and anger. Hold space for these feelings. They are protective emotions that hide vulnerability. The goal is not to challenge these defenses, but rather to empathize with feelings that might be underneath.
Sometimes teens and tweens do not want to talk about their feelings or need more time to make sense of them. Find the right balance between respecting their need for privacy and expressing gentle curiosity. Let them know that feelings of grief are appropriate. Share some of your own feelings about loss right now, and allow your vulnerability to open the door to exploring theirs. In doing so, you may help them strengthen their capacity to process difficult feelings with compassion and empathy.
Another challenge for many teens and tweens right now is loneliness, boredom, and feelings of isolation. Parents can help their children to reframe difficult things in their lives. Stuck-at-home is really safe-at-home. Social distancing gives way to distance socializing. What seems like forever is really only temporary.
Teens and tweens already connect when they are apart; their social media apps are invaluable to them. Showing an interest in what they create with their friends in their digital worlds is a great way to validate their social needs and affirm your presence in their lives.
Not all teens and tweens feel comfortable using devices to interact with friends. If you are their only source of connection, invite them for walks, to take a drive with you, or to say hello to family friends on your Zoom calls. Having opportunities to connect with the outside world helps remind them that the outside world still exists and they are very much a part of it.
Routines Reinforce Safety and Predictability
Although their lives have been disrupted, we can create some semblance of normalcy for our teens and tweens. Routines provide a structure for the experiences of life, like the frame of a house built on a solid foundation. Personal and family routines foster a sense of stability, reliability, and empowerment. As rituals, they also mark the passing of time, strengthen relationships with valued communities, and affirm achievements in life.
Adapting the routines and rituals of middle school and high school can provide structure for parents and students alike. Packing lunches for your teens and tweens and encouraging them to share lunchtime with friends are a good way to adapt a routine. Ask your children how they could reimagine extracurricular activities. For example, they might use Google Hangouts to make art or music with friends or to workout with teammates. Do they have the tools, materials, and resources to make these transitions?
Family routines help to maintain a sense of cohesion and mutual support. Wish your child a good day at school. Maintain a schedule for their daily and weekly chores. You might also put a laptop on the dining table for Friday night dinner with extended family. Maybe your family orders a pizza and makes popcorn for Sunday movie nights. Teens and tweens need structure for their growth and well-being as individuals and members of their families and peer groups.
If routines add to the pressures that your teens and tweens are experiencing, however, feel free to relax them. Needs may change from day to day and week to week. Keep the lines of communication open so that everyone feels heard.
Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Additional Support
Needing outside help to support teens and tweens is certainly not unusual. Parents might find that their child is at risk for more concerning mood instability or distressing behavioral changes due to the strains of COVID-19. Most therapists and physicians are available for telehealth appointments. Normalize emotions as much as possible; feelings are very human. But when teens or tweens exhibit mental or physical symptoms that begin to impact their ability to function, it would be wise to consult with a family physician or therapist for support and guidance.
Care for Them by Caring for Yourself
Parents should be gentle with themselves, too. Mindfulness practices are effective ways to regulate the nervous system and restore a sense of calm and safety. Using the tools of grounding, resourcing, and breath and body awareness also models a mindful approach to life for our children.
Parenting is difficult, and there has never been a perfect mechanism to alleviate the emotional turmoil of teens and tweens. Nonetheless, parents can help them to strengthen their ability to be with feelings and to meet their challenges with compassion and empathy.