Parenting Teens: Unique Challenges Amidst COVID-19
By: Janelle Froehlich, LMFT
Our families find themselves in uncharted territory. As a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I transitioned all clients to Telehealth over the past few weeks - the majority being teens. I began to notice unique challenges and patterns emerging, and hope that these observations may be helpful for parents navigating parenting adolescents during this season.
For a moment, remember what it was like to be a teen. Now imagine that someone told you that you were no longer allowed to see your friends, participate in social activities, and had to remain indoors (with your family!) for the majority of the day. How would you have reacted? Rebelled? What emotions might you have felt?
Would you have been angry? Confused? Sad? Hopeless?
If we approach our teens from a place of empathy, it may help to explain some of the behavior we are witnessing as events and restrictions continue to unfold.
Developmentally, adolescents are “all about their friends.” They’re supposed to be! This is the time when they are spending the most time with friends, and “pulling away” from the family unit. This reorientation to the social prepares them for the fast-approaching launch after high school, where they venture on the journey to adulthood.
And now we are asking them to do the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to be doing developmentally: don’t see you friends, don’t socialize, and stay inside. It is my belief that the self-quarantine and isolation will be hardest on our teens.
Additionally, teens may have a more difficult time engaging, valuing, or understanding the perspective of others. For example, you may have heard your teen say, “No one understands what I’m going through.” This is also a developmental factor.
However, this may prove particularly challenging when you are asking them to “self-quarantine” out of empathy for others, or understand that their actions could affect the public at large. Pursue repetitive gentle communication, rather than anger, as you assist them in engaging their empathy and consequences of their actions regarding others.
VALIDATE THE LOSS
Over the past few weeks, I have observed teens grieving unique losses. Although these losses may look different, it is important to validate that it is a loss TO THEM.
For example, many students did not have an opportunity to say good by to their friends. Students are struggling with the loss of connection and communication through classes and going to school. Many students are fearful that they will not be able to succeed in class, without the structure of class and in-person access to teachers and study groups. Student athletes who rely on athletics for stress management no longer have their primary coping. Seniors are grieving the loss of activities which they have looked forward to for years: prom, senior trips, and possibly graduation.
Keep in mind, they are experiencing loss today. But they are also considering the losses that may accumulate the longer that “shelter-in-place” mandates last. Validate and help teens talk about these losses, rather than minimize. It may not be a life or death issue, but it is a loss to them. And it matters.
LOSS OF PRIMARY COPING
What are your teens go-to coping skills? Is it spending time with friends? Participating in sports? Engaging in activities like school clubs or dance class? While teens are asked to spend a majority of their time indoors, this also means that they may have lost access to their primary coping - at a time when they need it most.
Help them re-identify healthy coping behaviors that can be engaged indoors, such as drawing, journaling, etc. Additionally (and depending on your comfort level), solitary mental health walks and runs may have an incredibly positive outcome.
However, it is important that you communicate that you are trusting them to abide by the solitary guideline, and not abuse this privilege by using it as an opportunity to sneak out to see their friends.
I have had many parents ask over the past few weeks, “How do we monitor phone use and screen time?” Keep in mind, these are unique circumstances. Perhaps we can pursue flexibility on this point temporarily. After all, technology is their only way to connect with friends. And right now, they really need their friends. At this time, technology is a very helpful tool in battling the challenges of isolation and loneliness. And yes, their screen time will increase.
Additionally, how can you help them find creative ways to stay social? Can they create a group video chat to have lunch or dinner together? Study groups? Video chat one another while they watch a movie?
Teens will also provide the most creative solutions for staying connected via technology, and I believe they can provide leadership on this front. I am always amazed at the creative solutions teens come up with.
However, it may be appropriate to empower your teen to restrict their exposure to the news and fear-based reporting and social media communication surrounding COVID-19. Help them to differentiate between editorials and non-biased, factual reporting (although that also remains difficult to navigate).
OPPORTUNITIES FOR INDEPENDENCE
Developmentally, it is important for teens to pursue independence. Are there ways that teens can remain independent, having independent schedules and activities during self-quarantine?
Additionally, how can you empower them to find structure for their day? Structure often defends against other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. What can they count on day-to-day? Look forward to?
OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH
What is something they want to get really good at during this time? Help the teen brainstorm areas of personal growth, whether that is learning a new instrument, editing photos and video, or becoming a phenomenal graphic designer. This may provide a sense of purpose, when they are bored and the hours seem to drag by.
DIFFERENTIATE: MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES VS. UNDERSTANDABLE REACTIONS
With new self-quarantine and “shelter-in-place” guidelines enacted, I have heard many teens say, “I think I’m getting depressed again.” For many teens, spending hours alone in their room and isolating were signs of surfacing depression.
It is important to help them differentiate, that “this is not that.” Yes, you are spending more time in your room, and you do not have the same access to your friends. But that does not mean you will automatically become depressed. Help them to get preventative by setting up structure that will battle the old habits and behaviors of depressive seasons.
Additionally, I have heard many students say, “My anxiety is coming back.” Assist the teen in differentiating between what is often theoretical fear, ie., “I am afraid something really bad could happen,” and an understandable response to something actually happening. There are difficult things happening in the world, and of course they may have a fear reaction to what they are hearing and seeing.
COMMUNICATION NOT CONTROL
Already, parents are facing challenges regarding teen compliance for staying at home and not seeing their friends. As adults, it is important that you put guidelines in place, even if they don’t like it.
However, the how is important. Rather than approaching guidelines from a position of control, ie., “You have to do what I say,” attempt to explain the reasoning behind the guidelines. We may not have had time to do this before, as things were shifting radically day-to-day. Now would be a great time.
Teens respond to the honest, non-reactive communication of feelings from their parents. For example, “I know how hard it is for you to not get to see you friends right now, but I’m really concerned for you grandmother. I am fearful that if you continue to see your friends, it might impact her safety.”
The media has communicated negative messaging around millennials and teens. We have an opportunity to express our gratitude to teens for their participation, compliance, and consideration of others. As human beings, we always respond better to positive reinforcement, rather than negative and shaming communication.
If you see the best in your teen, and praise them for their participation, they will rise to the challenge. They will step up. And it is important to treat them as valued and important participants in the safety of the family and our nation.
There are continued opportunities for counseling! Many therapists have transitioned to Telehealth, and can continue to provide care via video and online sessions. Our doors are not closed. If you observe that your teen is in need of extra support during this season, there are many trained professionals that would love to come alongside your family.