The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are a lot to handle, for all of us. Naturally, parents are concerned about how their children are handling it, and what they can do to help.
Parents with young children certainly face a difficult challenge (especially those working at home). But at least their kids’ needs are more straightforward: primarily, to stay occupied and stay safe.
With teens and pre-teens, their needs are not so obvious (especially if they are locked in their room all day). We spoke with a group of counselors who work with middle school and high school students about what teens are struggling with, and what they need most from their parents right now.
To help their teens through this crisis, counselors say that parents will need as much patience as they can muster. Here are their specific recommendations.
Make sure basic needs are met
Before we can deal effectively with a child’s emotional needs, we have to make sure their basic physical needs are met. Pay attention to the following:
Sleep. Students may be sleeping late since they no longer have to be in school at 7 am. However, they might be staying up all night and still not getting adequate sleep.
Nutrition. Living on mac and cheese and frozen pizza is not great for developing bodies and brains. If at all possible, provide some healthy options and take vitamins. Children who depend on school meals may not be getting enough food at all. If you are in this situation, your school can still provide access to meals. You can pick them up or have them delivered.
Exercise. Exercise is known to increase energy and reduce anxiety. Encourage teens to get moving, ideally outdoors where they can get fresh air and some beneficial vitamin D at the same time.
Help them establish a routine & set expectations
With older teens, parents frequently don’t feel the need to closely monitor their schedule. However, without the usual school schedule, many teens are having trouble managing their time and their responsibilities. Parents may not even know that their kids are failing to complete work.
The best way to help is to sit down and calmly discuss what is expected of them. Acknowledge that the change is not easy. Then work with them to develop a daily routine. That schedule should include not only school work, but also time for interaction with friends and family (more on that to come), time for relaxation and distraction, and a shutdown time so they get enough sleep.
Remember to avoid expecting perfection from teens right now, and make sure they know that. There’s no roadmap and we’re all doing the best we can.
Help them stay motivated
Unfortunately, being stuck at home has removed many of the things that naturally motivate teens to do what’s expected of them (social interaction, school supervision, and the rewards they earn from achievement).
This is a tough one. How do you motivate teens to keep working when the future and the path forward are so uncertain? It’s about patience, kindness, and gentle reassurance.
Here’s the message parents need to communicate to teens:
The format has changed but the expectations have not. We know it’s a struggle because things are uncertain. But we want you to continue to put your best foot forward and stay on the current path until we know otherwise.
Give them privacy
Teens need to talk about what’s going on and what they are feeling: to their friends, teachers, and counselors. But with the whole family at home, they may be reluctant to do so if they can’t find a private spot and are afraid of being overheard. And teens are unlikely to ask parents for privacy because they are worried about their reaction.
Parents, acknowledge your teen’s need for privacy, and do whatever you can to provide them with a safe space. Initiate a conversation and let your teen know that you understand and respect their need for privacy. If finding private space is challenging in your house right now, brainstorm ideas like going outside into a car, or putting a sticky note on a door when they don’t want to be disturbed.
Help them stay connected with friends safely
Not surprisingly, teens are feeling the loss of time spent with friends. And social media doesn’t seem to be enough to replace that.
Parents can help by suggesting alternate ways for their kids to stay connected to friends (and also family members) that they’re missing. Playing online games together is one idea. Teens can also spend time writing letters, making small gifts, or even baking cookies, then driving around town with a parent to drop them off on doorsteps.
These activities can reduce the temptation to overlook social distancing and try to interact with friends in ways that are not safe right now.
Regular check-ins and face time (not FaceTime)
Here’s what counselors have been surprised by: teens are actually craving face-to-face interaction. And not only with their friends. They are missing the small moments that happen when people are together.
Only you (and the people in your household) can give them that right now.
So, every day, take the time to check in with a real conversation. Ask them what they’re up to (and not whether they have done their homework).
Schedule some daily family time just to spend time together. Do something rewarding that helps others. Do something creative or just something fun (and make sure you ask what THEY think will be fun).
Validate their feelings
Kids know that their parents want them to be happy. So why are we surprised when they don’t tell us they are sad, angry, anxious, or disappointed?
Let your teens know that you realize they are going through a lot. And that it’s perfectly normal and okay to be feeling some of those negative emotions. Even if it’s not you, encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings with someone they trust.
Model appropriate & healthy self-expression
We are all dealing with many stressors right now. How you react in front of your teen is very important. Watch the words you use and your body language. Depending on their level of maturity, your child may feel your stress and mimic it.
With older kids, you shouldn’t try to completely hide your difficult emotions, either. Kids will notice if you’re telling them it’s okay to express their sadness and frustration, but don’t do the same yourself.
So you have to know your child. With some, you may be able to share frustrations about your situation and ask for their help (such as helping with cooking or younger siblings). You may be able to share that you’re worried about someone who is sick, without going into graphic details. The important thing is to share your feelings and struggles with your kids in an age-appropriate way.
Get them help (and encourage them to ask)
Students are facing all kinds of new challenges and obstacles to doing everything that’s expected of them. Sometimes they can’t solve a problem on their own and are reluctant to ask for help. They may not even realize that help is available to them.
For example, not every teen has their own laptop to do schoolwork on. In some households, several students are sharing a single computer. However, schools can help by lending equipment. Encourage your teen to ask for help, or ask you to intervene for them.
If the obstacle is an emotional one, such as anxiety, anger, or grief, teens are even less likely to reach out for help. That’s why parents need to pay attention to the signs that their child may need help. If you’re concerned, start by reaching out to teachers and school counselors.
It can sometimes be hard to tell if a child needs counseling, especially at a time like this when everything is changing. That’s why the mental health experts at Sage will be holding a webinar on this subject to help guide parents and teachers. Please join us!
Reading the Signs: Does My Child Need Help? Or Is This the New Normal?