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Supporting teens through the COVID-19 pandemic

The role of a parent of a teenager can feel more like being an Uber driver than an actual caregiver. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, stay-at-home orders are in place and all those events are on hold. While your parenting duties have likely shifted with the recent stay-at-home orders, you are likely wanting to find ways to support teens who feel lost with extra time and limited social interaction.

Teens are missing out on a lot of the things that are very important to them like prom, graduation, school performances, sporting events and social events. While these may not seem as important to adults, they are milestones that teens are looking forward to. If you have a senior in high school, there is probably a lot of sadness about the cancellation of all their “lasts.”  Many teens I have talked to feel as though they are mourning a loss. Let them know you hear them and that it is okay to be upset.

Here are some tips to help your teens cope with missing activities:

  • Validate their feelings
  • Use active coping strategies to manage any anxiety (e.g., exercise, talking to friends, meditating or doing some deep breathing, writing, drawing)
  • Try to stay on some type of daily routine
  • Find ways to keep them engaged and distracted when big emotions take over
  • Plan activities that they enjoy into their daily routine

If you don’t schedule them, they are less likely to happen!

  • Help them find ways to be helpful and support the community

Find canned good items in the pantry to donate, virtually tutor a friend or a younger student in the neighborhood or bring groceries to an elderly neighbor. These acts all help build character and will help them appreciate what they do have.

Beyond feeling sad because of what they are missing, teens might also be concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic and what that means for them, their friends and their loved ones.

Here are some tips to talk to your teens about the pandemic:

  • Start the conversation early and find out what they know.

If you avoid talking about the coronavirus pandemic with your teen it will not make the situation go away or minimize their fears. Invite them to share their thoughts and feelings about what is going on and ask them if they have any specific questions.

  • Be honest and direct.

Teens are very inciteful. They live in a time when school-shooting drills occur regularly, and our older teens were born in the age of 9/11. Sadly, they have already experienced scary things. Talk to your teen honestly about why the COVID pandemic is serious and what steps the family, state and country are taking to protect people. Share some of the basic facts about the pandemic and cite sources like the Center of Disease Control.

  • Explain to them why you are following stay-at-home orders.

Teens do well with concrete examples. Explain to them why the family is staying home, and school is cancelled. As good citizens, we are making sure we do everything we can to protect those who are at greater risk from the virus and to help the medical community.

  • Let them know it is normal to be worried.

Take the time to let them know it is completely normal and okay to be worried about what is going on. If we take the “put on a brave face” or “there is no crying in baseball” approach, we risk pushing our teens away and having them internalize all the scary thoughts they are already having. Invite your teens to share with you if their worries get too big or if they are getting to difficult to manage, then seek help.

  • Side-by-side conversations.

A great tip for having great conversations with your teen is to sit side-by-side rather than sitting face-to-face when you are talking with them. Take a walk with your teen and just start a normal conversation. You may be surprised what they talk about when they are feeling more relaxed.

  • Help them to be more knowledgeable consumers.

The recent barrage of media coverage of COVID-19 has led to a lot of false information, which thrives on the internet. Talk to your teen about how to tell whether information is coming from a reliable source, one that is researched or fact-based, or whether it is an opinion or anecdote. Use the opportunity to do some research together.

  • Connect teens with supports.

Don’t feel as a parent you must tackle all this alone. Teens normally get information from a variety of sources. Encourage teens to talk to their faith leaders, if applicable, teachers, therapists and/or counselors about their worries. Many mental health providers are using telemedicine for virtual visits to help teens cope.

  • Offer them opportunities for choice and decision making.

During difficult times, we all need to make conscious efforts to focus on the things we do have control over. Remind your teen that they do have control over some things and that making decisions can be empowering.

  • Remind them you are the adult.

Teens often worry about friends and family members the most. Remind them, as the parent, you are responsible for the family’s well-being and are taking steps to keep everyone safe. Let them know it is their job to do what they can to keep themselves well, help their neighbors when they can and keep learning.

The biggest thing to remember for your teen, and for you, as a parent, is that this is new for all of us. We are all learning but use this time to connect with your teen and help them through. Grace and empathy need to be pillars in all our homes at this time. We can do this!

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Child Psychology

Child Psychologist; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine