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May 30, 2020
Teens face many age-group-specific challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Adolescence is a stage when many people value time with peers and seek independence from parents. Now, the coronavirus has left teens isolated from friends and at home with their families 24/7. However, parents can develop strategies to make life easier for teens, and themselves, during this challenging time.
Teens who previously had heavily scheduled days of classes, sports practice, social outings, or part-time work may find it difficult to adjust to unstructured time. The lack of structure may enhance or amplify feelings of uncertainty teens often already experience, according to clinical psychologist Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, founder and senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute (OCDI Jr.) at McLean Hospital.
“It’s important for parents to gently encourage their teens to have structure around schoolwork as well as household tasks,” Coyne said. 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.”
She added that regular sleep and exercise schedules are also beneficial, as these factors help 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.”
The COVID-19 pandemic can be difficult for teens who are seeking autonomy, a sense of self, and privacy as they experience healthy development during adolescence. Because of this, Coyne said, it’s important for parents to give their teens space.
“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. Also, 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.”
Social isolation can be especially difficult for young people. The fact that so many teens are connected through social media and online gaming can actually be helpful during this time, according to Coyne. If teens push boundaries by wanting to visit boyfriends or girlfriends during physical distancing restrictions, she suggested parents have collaborative conversations around the actual risks and how these work in the context of the family.
“Consider: Are there older, vulnerable family members at home? What are the government or town restrictions?” Coyne said. She encouraged parents not to demand compliance since that will mostly cause teens to push back. “Instead, approach the situation by empathizing and treating the teen as if they are just about to do the ‘next right thing.’”
Did you miss Dr. Coyne’s webinar in our COVID-19 and Mental Health series? Watch now on demand.
According to Coyne, if teens feel empowered and trusted, they will sometimes make better decisions about risk. Because it can be hard for parents to feel more out of control than their adolescents, a developmental shift in parenting is required to help support healthy, flexible decision-making. “The best way to get there,” Coyne said, “is to work on authentic, empathic, and more collaborative conversations with teens.”
Teens are experiencing many losses at this time, including missing parties, proms, sporting events, and maybe even graduation. Coyne said the first action parents can take is to recognize that their teens maybe be grieving these losses.
Parents can empathize and give space to their teens by listening, and then receiving what their teens wish to say. “I would encourage parents to 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.
It wouldn’t be adolescence if there weren’t some frustration between parents and teens, Coyne said. She points out that sometimes parents’ first instinct can be to come down hard on back-talking or angry teens, but she encourages parents to remember a couple of simple rules:
Most of all, Coyne said, parents should listen, and let what their teen has to say in. “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.”