While most of us understand the need for social isolation and distancing during the COVID-19 crisis, many of us are still struggling. On top of trying to wrap our brains around an international health pandemic the likes of which none of us have ever seen, we are facing unprecedented changes ranging from working at home to homeschooling – not to mention the countless other adjustments we’ve had to make to our understanding of “normal.” The result is that quarantine is having a huge impact on mental health. And while we, as adults, are seeing shifts to our own mental health, teens are suffering in particularly big ways.
Teens are by nature social beings. We all remember the friendships and social connections we had as teens and whether they are fondly remembered or happily forgotten, we can acknowledge the impact they had.
The teen years are formative and shape the people we become as adults. For kids who are used to daily interaction with peers through school, sports, and social engagements, this is a particularly difficult time as they find themselves cut off from their regular activities. In addition to the loss of interaction, many teens have also lost milestone events such as proms, sports’ seasons, and graduation ceremonies.
CNN recently published an article highlighting the impact the current climate is having on teens and the long term effects it might have. This article underscores the importance of monitoring our teens’ mental health and emotional well being during such a difficult time and offers many useful perspectives for parents.
Here are just a few of the hardships that teens are facing currently:
- A naturally heightened sensitivity to stress (often hormonally-driven)
- Loss of in-person interaction
- A disruption to the formation of their identity
- Loss of memory-making opportunities (i.e., milestone events and daily interactions as mentioned above)
- Increased anxiety
- An uncertain future
- Difficulty finding distractions
Add all of these things together, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster – or at least, a teen whose emotions are on a constant pendulum.
This is a hard topic to tackle. I, personally, have four teens in my household. After five weeks in quarantine, I can look back and say that it’s been less than ideal, particularly given the fact that I have one teen with a diagnosed anxiety disorder and another with ADHD. I can also openly and honestly admit that I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have not always handled the increased levels of stress and lightning charged atmosphere of our newly confined lives with anything remotely resembling grace.
However, it is this fact alone that emphasizes the need for thoughtful and conscious parenting. And it is with this in mind that I not only seek to find ways to improve my own response to my teens’ needs during quarantine, but offer suggestions to others who are navigating these tricky waters.
Ways to Help Your Teens During Quarantine:
1. Be empathetic to your teens
While sympathy is a feeling of regret or sadness for someone’s situation or plight, empathy is feeling (or at least attempting to feel) the emotions that person is experiencing. This can be difficult with a teenager who tends to swoon at the slightest disruption, explodes at the mention of chores, cries when their favorite band breaks up, or sees a disagreement with a friend or family member as the end of the world. It is even more difficult when you, the parent, are feeling stress around issues of employment, financial hardships, and the health and safety of your family. In other words, it’s hard to feel empathy for someone who sucks the oxygen out of the room with their hysterics when you have “real” issues to deal with.
This is when it is important to take a step back and allow your teens to simply feel what they’re feeling. Their worlds have been turned upside down and the are feeling grief and anger. It may not seem rational to you, but to them, it is reality. Don’t try to rationalize with them as that will only lead to feelings of invalidation. Rather, lend an empathetic ear to their concerns, remembering your own emotional volatility as a teen – and remind them that their feelings matter.
NOTE: It can be easy to feel resentment towards teens who often seem like rational beings, then lose it over the slightest thing. You may find yourself feeling frustrated that you’re constantly talking them off the ledge, when you, yourself, are plagued with worries. Just as it’s important that you be there for them, you need to find someone to be there for you – whether it’s a spouse, therapist, or friend. The healthier you are, the more you’ll have to give to your teens.
2. Find a balance between technology and spending time “unplugged”
If you have teens, you already know they have a better relationship with their phone than they have with you most times; at the very least, they often seem to show that little handheld portal to the outside world more love, attention, and respect than they show you. And as frustrating as it may be to have teens that would rather stare at their screens than enjoy a family dinner, we can be grateful for technology during quarantine.
Being able to communicate with friends through social media, messaging, and video calls provides a vital link for them. Technology has become their only bridge to the outside world and keeps them connected to the friends who, for the time being, have the greatest influence on them and their identity. Let them have that.
Likewise, gaming, television, and other viewing media can provide a much needed distraction. Being able to focus on something other than their own thoughts, even if it’s a silly sitcom on TV, can provide a much needed break to their frantic thoughts and feelings of anxiety.
However, keep in mind the vast amounts of research that stress the importance of limiting screen time for teens. Too much screen time has, historically, contributed to obesity, attention problems, sleep disorders, and increased social angst. Furthermore, social media has proven to increase depression within the teen population – a scary thought anytime, but even more so now.
Considering these factors, it is important to find a balance between allowing access to friends and distractions, and ensuring adequate exercise, opportunities to help out around the house, and meaningful family interaction. And because right now, even adults are experiencing increased screen time and the consequent side effects, one of the easiest ways to address this is to set up some family schedules that everyone can adhere to, such as:
- As many of us are now working from home, establish set “work hours” when everyone stays busy with school work or professional jobs.
- Set aside time in the evenings for family time, whether it’s having a family dinner, taking a walk, or playing a game.
- Have chores that will provide a distraction, while ensuring that everyone is contributing to overall family life.
- Incorporate shared screen time like video chatting with extended family or watching TV together.
- Allow time in the afternoons or evenings that give kids a chance to catch up with friends – even if they exceed your “normal” screen time limits.
3. Be willing to compromise and be creative
It’s important to remember that teens don’t always respond well to authoritarian control. As much as we want to lay down the law, we’ve lost a lot of our bargaining chips as parents, because it’s difficult to ground a defiant teen or take away their car keys when they can’t go anywhere as it is. Compromise is important and can go a long way in restoring domestic harmony.
Here are a few ways you can offer your teens an inch towards their happiness, without sacrificing a mile of your family’s safety and health:
- Consider allowing them to see a friend in a safe, socially distanced way. You can set up a space in the backyard or on your porch, and as long as they stay six feet (or more) apart, they can catch up face-to-face.
- As mentioned above, be a bit more lenient with screen time so they can stay connected to their outside lives and identities.
- Don’t get angry if they need to isolate in their rooms (within reason) – this might just be what they need to recharge.
- Allow teens that can drive to do just that – take a drive. As long as you trust them not to make risky choices, sometimes just being out and about can go a long way.
- Most of all, just listen and be willing to find creative ways to tackle quarantine challenges together.
4. Continue to make big moments special.
Remember that teens are grieving the loss of many special moments – moments that would have become lifetime memories. Do your best to celebrate these moments as a means of reminding your teen how important they are – and in the process, you’ll give them a new set of lifetime memories that, while shaded by quarantine, will be special all the same. Here are few things you can do:
- Host an at-home or video conference prom. If they’ve already got a dress or suit, great. If not, improvise. Have them borrow one of dad’s suits. If you have an old prom dress in the attic or closet, let them go vintage. Either way, go all out with hair and makeup and make the most of it.
- Pick out and send graduation announcements together – even if there’s no promise of a ceremony.
- Encourage family to send video messages, cards, or drop off special packages and treats for birthdays.
- Host an end of the school year party via video conference. Since most kids already have Zoom contacts for teachers, you can even include special teachers in on the party and allow your kids to say “good-bye.”
- If you’ve already missed a family vacation or have had to cancel an upcoming trip, create adventure at home. Go camping in your backyard or set up a massive family blanket fort in the living room. Sure, your teens might roll their eyes – but they’ll remember it!
5. Help them find things they can control
One of the biggest challenges teens are facing is a complete and utter loss of control. They are trapped in a purgatory between youth and adulthood, they have no sense of what their future may hold, and they have just had the outside world shut off to them. In a recent article from the Washington Post, clinical psychologist Sherry Kelly, offers teens the following advice:
“You can’t control COVID, the weather, not being in school, what homework teachers are dumping on you right now, and if you spend a lot of energy thinking about these things, you’ll feel even more invalidated and disempowered…When you focus on what you can control — what you believe about yourself, the words you use, what you spend your time and energy on — you’ll feel more in control of your emotions and your life, which will ultimately make you feel more positive.”
As parents, we can help our kids regain a sense of control by helping them find and focus on the things that remain within their grasp. Whether it’s creating their own schedule that you help them enforce, allowing them to help with meal planning and prep, giving them areas of the house that are “theirs,” or simply writing down the things they are grateful for, we can help to empower them and give back a small semblance of control and normalcy.
6. Look for signs of depression – and ACT
There’s a fine line between anxiety and depression. Naturally, we’re all feeling increased anxiety, but depression can be a tougher nut to crack – often with longer lasting and more serious implications. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says 50% of mental illnesses develop by age 14, which means are teens are more vulnerable than ever right now.
Given that we are in unusual times and all of us are experiencing mental, emotional, and behavioral changes, keeping an open line of communication with your teen is one of the most important things you can do. Maintaining open and honest dialogue will help you know whether your teen is actually depressed or is appropriately responding to a difficult and undeniably traumatic time.
Be sure to click here for a complete list of signs and symptoms of depression in teens. If you have any fear for their immediate safety, call 911 or visit your nearest emergency room.
If your child is not an immediate danger to themselves or others, but you are afraid that depression may be setting in, there are resources. ChildSavers is an agency in the Richmond area that offers a 24/7 Immediate Response hotline available for mental health and trauma crises involving children. Anyone can call (804) 305-2420 to access the service for free.
People who utilize the number can talk with a clinician for immediate over-the-phone support. The clinician can also refer the child to ongoing mental health services through ChildSavers or community partners, if needed. In addition, the agency provides telephone-based therapy and video conferencing via Zoom.
Please know that ChildSavers’ clinicians provide treatment for children and adolescents regardless of an ability to pay. For more information and to learn more about the organization’s mental health services, visit https://childsavers.org/ or call (804) 644-9590.
The simple fact is that we’re looking at a changed world – no matter how long quarantine continues.
We’re going to face untold challenges in the coming months. And for many of our teens (and us as parents), that’s a terrifying thought. However, we really are all in this together. Our teens, and younger children for that matter, will be the future leaders of the very world that is being shaped right now. They stand poised to do great things and bring about positive change for the future – but first, we have to get through this intact.
Yes, this has been traumatic for all of us, and yes, there will be a collective PTSD that will ripple through the coming years. But right now, in this moment, we have to remember that love is what matters.
No matter how tough it gets, how much push back you face, or how much rejection you feel, what your teens need more than anything right now is our unconditional love, acceptance, and support. For at the end of the day, that is what keeps us all going.