It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed when considering the current state of our nation. The word that so boldly comes to mind when thinking about all of this is none other than “loss”. In many ways, it seems that each generation is facing its own sort of loss.
For those over the age of 60, not only is it a feared loss of life, but the spread of COVID-19 has also caused many to recognize their own aging process or ailing health among other limitations. Those in young and middle adulthood are facing a loss of work, financial stability, and plans for their future. College-aged individuals are missing a sense of freedom and independence that they have grown accustomed to.
Even our teens are coping with something equally existential: a loss of childhood and many important memories and/or meaning-making opportunities.
While each age group’s specific challenges look different, what the spread of this virus and its containment efforts mean for all of us is a loss of social connectedness. Not surprisingly, the loss of social connectedness has had different implications depending on your stage of life, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the teenage years.
The State of Our Teens
As notably described by Erickson, developmentally, adolescents are in the “identity vs role confusion” stage of life. When we consider this task of adolescence, we are reminded that not only are they working to discover who they are and where they fit in, but they are also trying to make sense out of the world- something that is often aided by the presence of peers as emotional confidants as opposed to parents.
Due to restrictions and social distancing, many of the events that provide a sense of community and “right of passage” have been canceled. Sports team championships, extracurricular activities, Prom, graduation and the school play have all been canceled. Teens look to opportunities for social connection, but such opportunities also serve toward developing our teens’ sense of identity and to refine their relationship to self, peers, family and community. Without access to peers and activities, it is no surprise that many teens are left unmotivated and directionless.
What Parents Can Do
While you are undoubtedly experiencing your own stress related to this pandemic, it often does not compare to the helplessness you may feel when recognizing the effects it is having on your son or daughter.
We’ve put together some DBT-inspired tips to help you help them through this uncertain time.
Help Them to Name It
Often when we feel overwhelmed by our emotions, it can be extremely helpful to identify language around what we are experiencing in addition to employing other coping skills. We are not able to effectively regulate our emotions without identifying them and understanding their function. Emotions are complex physiological events and each one has associated thoughts, physical sensations and action urges. Emotions are important in that they can communicate to ourselves and others how we are impacted by events going on around us.
Approaching a conversation with a teen reluctant to discuss their internal world could begin with, “I can imagine that you might be feeling sad or a little lost in all this” or, “It would make sense to me if you were angry or confused about what’s happening”. Remember to lead with empathy for what they’re going through and normalize how it is understandable. Keep in mind that 2-3 months to a 17-year old is experienced much differently than 2-3 months to an adult who’s lived through many more years of life.
Encourage them to not see their boredom as a “bad” emotion, but rather as a sign that they are lacking creativity and empower them to find opportunities to remedy it.
Remember That You Can’t Fix It
Parents struggling with their own sense of helplessness do well to remember that there is no magic answer to make things easier for their children. While we initially want to be accepting of their feelings and response to stress, we also want to gracefully move from that place of acceptance to begin focusing on what we can change.
Although we cannot “fix it”, we can accompany them in the problem-solving process, especially regarding what to do with their time now and how to set goals for the future. However, we want to be careful to avoid simply telling them what to do, as this type of behavior typically invites an unnecessary power struggle.
Help Them to Accumulate Short-Term Positive Emotions
As we adjust to our new reality, it will be helpful to your teen if you’re able to achieve a balance between respecting their time for social interaction with friends online, while also making your home a fun and desirable place to be. This might require getting creative, think: planning ahead to make pasta from scratch as a family, declaring one night a week a game or puzzle night, or hosting a “progressive dinner” where each family member picks and prepares food surrounding a particular theme and you “travel” to different rooms in the house.
Even when it feels bleak, it is still possible to find positive moments to help lift your spirit. The challenge during this time is that they must be done with intention. Do the leg work for your family time at home and encourage them to find their own creative ways to bring the same energy to their friend group.
Above all, it may help to remind your teen that although it feels like this may last forever, there will indeed be an end to what we’re going through. While it may not happen overnight, the time will come again to make plans, connect with others, and renew the goals and vision they had for the future.