The COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes for everyone, but few will miss more important milestones than high school seniors.
Dr. Bela Sood, child and adolescent psychiatrist, offers some insight for parents on how to help teens of all grade levels navigate the emotions of missing friends and missing out as a result of COVID-19.
Navigating teenage emotions during COVID-19: Insights for parents from child and adolescent psychiatrist, Dr. Sood
How are teens different from younger children in terms of mental health during this time?
It’s common to lump kids into one group, but teens have very different developmental needs than small children. Adolescents tend to start detaching from their families and developing stronger connections with their peers and social groups. They remain very keenly aware of how their parents are feeling and keep an ear out to what parents are saying, but do not show it…on the surface their friends are the ones they turn to.
So, you can imagine that this social distancing and lack of face-to-face connection with peers is a major stressor for them in contrast to younger kids who are very content being with their parents. It can also be hard for teens to understand how all of the rules and mandates apply to them and the importance of their role in this. It may be worth reiterating what a noxious virus this is and the fact that they can catch it or they can be asymptomatic carriers, bring it home and cause others to be sick, including grandparents and other loved ones.
However, it’s important to validate their feelings and acknowledge any anger that may exist. Recognize how important prom, the last stretch of school and graduation are. This could be re-framed as – “this year of high school is now ‘extra special’ and you’ll remember it throughout your life.” We can also challenge them to produce memories and projects that are unique to this time to help make the most of the situation.
How can parents encourage teens to open up so we can validate their feelings and help them through this situation?
Everyone who has raised teenagers has struggled with this challenge, with one situation or another. Teenagers are not typically going to solicit your advice. As parents we have to understand that this isn’t personal.
Try to make your communication with them as non-threatening as possible. Maybe your family can agree to have dinner together each day. One of the advantages of this pandemic is that people have the time to do that. This is a good time to find out how everyone is feeling. You might even talk about your own vulnerability. You don’t have to lose control of your emotions, but you can gently share your own feelings and your teenager might join in.
Normalizing their feelings is also very important – “How must it feel to not be around your friends? How must it feel to have been looking forward to an event that is now not going to happen? That must be so disappointing.” You can share your own disappointments in missing out on things you had planned so they know they are not alone in feelings of sadness or frustration.
What are some things that might be stressors for teenagers at this time?
A big thing is missing out on important and sentimental life events, particularly for those who are graduating from high school. This is their last experience before they become young adults and it’s a rite of passage that feels like they have been “robbed of.” It is sure to cause high emotions and feelings of frustration, which may include resentment.
As far as young adults who might have concerns about what this means for their future, it can be helpful to remind them that everyone who is preparing to receive them into their new environments knows that ALL people have been affected by this. Being at home doesn’t preclude them from preparing for the future. They can set up a schedule and have goals for what they would like to be doing when this is over – either by themselves or with the help of people online.
Most importantly, it is acknowledging their loss and knowing that it’s validated by the significant people in their life. And then, it’s time to move on. That’s the nature of loss like this – you have to accept it and then figure out how things are going to work out for you.
In addition to talking over family dinners, what are some other ways parents can make this time less stressful for teens?
As humans, we’re creatures of habit so creating a loose schedule for the day and sticking with it as much as possible can be helpful for everyone. When kids go to school there is a set of guidelines for how the day is going to go, and often it’s the unpredictability of not knowing that causes anxiety.
Spending time with family is a great thing to do these days. Maybe your teenager will let you into their world a little bit – you can find out what’s trending in the teen world. Talk about things that are important to them and focus on things they’ve wanted to do, but don’t usually have the time for. We’ve seen videos of teens teaching their parents to use TikTok and making funny videos together.
Look at the opportunities this time can bring and take advantage of them.
What resources does CHoR have available to help parents during this time?
The Cameron K. Gallagher Mental Health Resource Center is a great hub for support and referrals. Family navigators at the center are available to offer guidance and connect you with mental health options should those be needed. CHoR also has a host of articles and videos for people at all stages of parenthood available at chrichmond.org/COVID19, such as how to manage anxiety and talk to your kids about COVID-19.
Watch the full interview with Dr. Sood: