The novel coronavirus has dramatically disrupted the lives of many teens who now face anxiety and uncertainty over their own health, the safety of family and friends, and the economic impact of COVID-19 on their lives. The shutdown of schools and requirements for social distancing have cut teenagers off from their primary social outlets, forcing them to confront serious questions about the future of their education and their lives as a whole. Many teens have been unable to participate in commonly celebrated milestones such as prom and graduation. These factors have created a depressing, disappointing, and emotionally anxious time for them.
As lockdowns are eased and the United States begins reopening, teenagers are eager to get back out into the world to interact with friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, this is much more complicated and risky than it used to be. Large social gatherings remain unsafe. Some level of social distancing will remain necessary until an effective vaccine is developed. Schools will almost certainly be structured and operate differently upon reopening.
Shortridge Academy is in the process of welcoming students back and will be fully open for the fall semester. All proceedings to that end will adhere to strict health and safety protocols set by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. Students and staff must understand and adhere to these guidelines to protect themselves and others. As stricter guidelines become the “new normal” in schools and across all of public life, parents must talk to their teens about how to stay safe and respect these new rules. Parents also need to set healthy boundaries on appropriate behavior and find the best ways to support their teens throughout this constantly evolving crisis.
Safety is Paramount
Safety is the most fundamental concern of the pandemic. Given the tendency of the virus to impact older demographics and those with underlying health conditions more severely, many teens may feel that they are “invincible” and that they need not be concerned. However, as many as one in five COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. have been younger adults. In light of this, parents must discuss these risks with their teens. Teenagers, for their part, must understand the severity of the virus and its ability to spread easily to family and friends, so parents should emphasize proper social distancing and mask use.[i]
As much as encouraging quarantine is ideal, people are unlikely to be willing to stay indoors indefinitely. It is therefore vital to help teens distinguish between relatively safe and unsafe situations. Parents should explain, for example, that a small outdoor gathering where everyone wears masks and maintains proper distance is comparatively much safer than a crowded party indoors. Teaching teenagers how to take proper precautions and manage risk in such social situations is key as states reopen and more people venture out.
Tending to Teens’ Emotional Needs
Along with ensuring their safety, a significant part of supporting your teen through this crisis is being attentive to their emotional needs. Many teens already face mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The pandemic has produced feelings of worry and sadness even in those who do not struggle with mental illness.[ii] Acknowledging your teen’s feelings and allowing them to feel what they need to feel is an important part of helping them cope. Help your teen understand that everyone is affected by this virus mentally and emotionally, and that feeling fear, anxiety, and sadness as a reaction to current events is normal.
When discussing these sorts of feelings with your teenager, it is important to let them voice their worries, to truly listen to what’s bothering them, and to talk through what can be done to address their concerns. If they feel anxiety over health risks, work together to develop a plan on how to prioritize safety in your daily lives. It may be necessary to discourage or even place some limits on your teen’s consumption of the news, given the frequency of stories about the crisis. If your teen is struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness, find ways to encourage them to connect with friends and family in a safe way. This can take the form of watching movies together online, finding communities based around a shared hobby, or simply taking the time to check in with them more often. The same sorts of strategies apply for feelings of missing out on life-seminal events. While nothing can replace events like prom or graduation, organizing remote celebrations or hangouts with friends or family can go a long way.
Encouraging Positive Lifestyle Changes
Encouraging positive lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, or meditation, can help them develop good coping strategies. Try to find ways to participate in similar types of activities with your teen, such as cooking meals together, going for walks outside, or jointly taking up the same new hobby. For more moderate to severe mental health issues, remote therapy or counseling can be profoundly helpful and may be a vital part of coping for many.
Having a sense of structure can help while living together under such stressful times. Consider working with your teen to come up with a schedule that keeps them on track for accomplishing relevant academic work, chores, and anything else they want to get done. The rigidity of such a schedule depends on your teen’s needs. They may need a loose schedule to help them stay focused and provide structure to the day, or they may find it difficult to accomplish tasks without the support of a more fixed schedule. Similarly, coming up with a plan that sets expectations around behavior, chores, and technology can be a good way to set healthy limits and boundaries. Setting goals with your teenager on things they wish to accomplish can also provide a sense of meaning and focus in a time where it’s all too easy to feel discouraged.
Looking out for a teenager during COVID-19 is no easy task, from navigating health worries to addressing family conflict during quarantine. Setting clear limits and boundaries is essential, but so is remaining flexible and open to a teen’s needs. Above all else, patience, compassion, and communication are the keys to succeeding in this “balancing act.” As a parent, also remember that your own emotional needs matter. Taking the time to address your own needs with self-care is important. For more resources on helping your teen manage anxiety, stress, and mental health during the pandemic, please see the Centers for Disease Control’s guide to stress and coping related to COVID-19.