Coping Through COVID-19; 5 Tips to Help Teens Navigate the “New Normal” During a Pandemic

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently reports that the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is low for young Americans, research on natural disasters makes it clear that, compared to adults, children are more vulnerable to the emotional impact of traumatic events that disrupt their daily lives.

Adolescence is a phase when teens value time spent with friends and the pursuit of independence from their parents. The Coronavirus pandemic has left teens feeling even more isolated and burdened with social isolation. However, parents can help their teens navigate and develop strategies to make life easier for their teens, and themselves during this unprecedented time.

1. The Importance of Structure

Prior to the pandemic, teenagers’ schedules were heavily filled with nonstop classes, sports practice, part-time work, and social outings; today navigating through unstructured time may be difficult for them to adjust. Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, founder and senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute at McLean Hospital states, “it’s important for parents to gently encourage their teens to have structure around schoolwork as well as household tasks.” She suggests parents teach teens a simple principle to organize their time. “First, do the hard thing, which is most likely schoolwork,” she said. “And then do the fun thing—a video call with a friend, or whatever it may be.” Coyne added, “Parents can emphasize that this situation is difficult for them too and model how to follow these guidelines themselves.”

Dr. Coyne suggests that regular sleep and exercise schedules are also beneficial, as these factors help to regulate mood and provide structure. “It’s important to remember in adolescence teens go through a sleep-phase shift. They tend to go to sleep later and wake later than when they were younger,” Coyne said. “At the same time, there are simple things parents can do to set some boundaries with this,” she added. “Setting limits on screen time in the late evening would be a big one, as screens can disrupt sleep onset.”

2. Balancing Family and Alone Time

A teenager’s time is precious to them and this pandemic can be difficult for teens to feel they have a sense of autonomy. “A teen’s room may be their haven, and I’d encourage parents not to immediately worry if their teens are spending a good bit of time in their room,” she said. Coyne suggests that parents be respectful by knocking before entering and asking permission. She adds, rather than making demands that teens have family time, parents can invite them. “Giving teens a role in the family, for example, to help with a particular daily task like setting the table, doing the dishes, can also be helpful and give teens a sense of structure.”

3. Connection Through Collaboration

Feeling the stress of social isolation in teens can be especially difficult during a pandemic. However, the era of social media and online gaming can be helpful for teens during this time, said Coyne. Teens are very good at pushing boundaries, Coyne suggests parents have collaborative conversations around the actual risks and how these work in the context of the family and physically distancing restrictions.

“Consider: Are there older, vulnerable family members at home? What are the government or town restrictions?” Coyne said. “Instead, approach the situation by empathizing and treating the teen as if they are just about to do the ‘next right thing.” According to Coyne, if teens feel empowered and trusted, they will sometimes make better decisions about risk. “The best way to get there,” Coyne said, “is to work on authentic, empathic, and more collaborative conversations with teens.”

4. Coping with Change and Loss

Many teens feel as though they are mourning a loss, like missing high school milestones – prom, graduation, school performances, sporting events, and parties. Coyne said the first action parents can take is to recognize that their teens maybe be grieving these losses. She suggests that parents can empathize and give space to their teens by listening, and then then receiving what their teens wish to say. Coyne points out that parents should “resist problem-solving in this conversation, as the most important ingredient would be for teens to feel heard.”

If parents want to help, Coyne said, they can then ask thoughtful questions, such as “Do you have any ideas about how you might mark these occasions a different way? What are your friends doing? If you could do something that would help you and your friends make this a meaningful event, what might that look like?” If the teens come up with an idea, such as a remote “Google Hangout” prom, parents can support it.

5. Coping with Frustration

Adolescence would not exist without constant barrage of frustrations between parents and teens, Coyne suggests that parents refrain from their first instinct of coming down hard on their teen and instead she encourages parents to remember a couple of simple rules: 

  • Timing Is Everything: A well-timed chat when a teen is calm goes much further than in the middle of a heated argument when nobody can hear anything the other person is saying.
  • Pick Your Battles: “Is your teen safe? Are they mostly responsive and connected in your home? Then see if you can let the minor irritations go,” Coyne said. “We all lose our temper sometimes, and it isn’t necessarily a mark of disrespect to one another.” Be gentle and empathic, she adds, and in quiet moments, set kind but firm boundaries when required about what behavior is, and is not, ok with you.

Most of all, Coyne said, parents need to listen, and allow to let in what their teen has to say. “It may be helpful for parents to take some time to think back to what they were like, and what they understood, and how they viewed the world when they were teenagers, and to let that ‘teen self’ out to chat with their own teen.”

If your teen is having trouble managing their mental health and needs support, Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital is here to help. Find out more about our treatment options for teensCall us today at 360-651-6400.