UW Pediatrician: How to help your teenager manage stress during COVID-19 pandemic

In this time of social distancing and school cancellations, many families have teenagers suddenly home all the time.  The loss of social stimulation and routine, coupled with the onslaught of news and concern about the COVID-19 pandemic can cause teens to express anger, frustration, and anxiety in ways that are challenging for their families.  Amy Stockhausen, MD (Clinical Associate Professor, Division of General Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine), offers ideas for helping your teenager during this stressful time.

Practice active listening and truly acknowledge their concerns and feelings

While a family is struggling with illness, loss of work, or having trouble with food or medication resources, it can be tempting to blow off our teenagers as they complain about not seeing their friends or not being able to participate in the basketball game they wanted to play.  Sometimes what is most important on their list of worries can seem trivial or selfish or foolish to their parents.  Most teenagers spend their days at school around lots of their peers, and to have that environment abruptly changed leaves a void of social stimulation that is distressing to many teens.  Most of them did not have a chance to say goodbye to their friends before their classes were cancelled, and many families are restricting their children from gathering in small groups. 

Remember that as normally-developing teenagers, they are supposed to be more self-focused, and the events that have been cancelled are some of the biggest and most important things in their world.  Even in the best of times, it is normal for teens to want to spend time with their friends more than their nuclear family, and the sudden absence of those friends is felt as an acute loss.  We can compare how our teens are feeling about these abrupt changes to the physical and emotional state of grieving.

Look your teenager in the eyes when you’re talking to them.  Put down your work or your phone and really listen to what they are saying.  Acknowledge that you hear what they are saying about feeling angry or frustrated or sad.  This is not a time to provide judgement about how they are feeling, or to try to fix whatever problems they are having.  Rather, just listen and be present.  Perhaps ask how you can help. Mostly, just let them talk.

Help your teen maintain a routine.

While taking an extended vacation from school and work might sound like a relaxing idea, most people thrive on routine and structure.  Routine helps our bodies and brains stay focused and healthy.  Encourage your teenager to maintain a routine for daily exercise or sports-specific drills, school work and reading, practicing a musical instrument, and even leisure activities.  Think about creating a list as a family of spring chores that need to be done around the house and yard, and ask everyone in the family to pick one twice a week to do.  Teens can help with laundry, cleaning, and food preparation. Plus, pitching in with some of these daily activities eases the load for the whole family.  Just remember that if your teen is doing some of this work for you, try hard not to criticize the way in which they are doing it unless there are safety concerns or other major issues.  

Encourage social contact, even if distanced.

If it’s not possible to allow your teen to see one or two friends for a night of watching movies or playing games in someone’s home, encourage them to stay in touch with people in meaningful ways.  Using their smartphones to video chat one-to-one or in groups is a much richer experience than texting or group chatting with words alone.  Suggest that your teen thinks of someone from school each day who they haven’t talked to in a while, or who might be too shy to reach out to others, and send a text message checking in on them.  Ask your teen to reach out and video or telephone chat with grandparents or other more distant relatives from time to time—the experience will be good for the relatives as well as the teen, even if it’s only a few minutes.  Teens can help check in on neighbors who may need extra help, run errands for elderly people in your area who may be isolated in their homes, or can help with food and supply drives in your area to assist with supporting the most vulnerable in your community.

Since so much of our usual lives are on hold right now, there is often very little else to talk about other than the COVID pandemic, our feelings about it, and how our families are going to deal with the illness as well as the social and economic implications of the current control measures.  Keep in mind that as you talk about this in your home, your teens are listening.  While they may not be participating in the decision making and planning, they are paying attention and thinking about your family’s situation.  Talking about these issues without a break can contribute to stress, anxiety, and hopelessness.  Set aside time each day when you agree as a family NOT to talk about COVID.  Remember who is listening when the adults in the home are talking about future planning and possible negative outcomes, and think about keeping those discussions more private until they need to be shared.  Use this as a time to talk about your shared family values relative to our society and the broader implications of this pandemic, and listen with interest to your teen if they express viewpoints different than your own.  Try to model a healthy approach to uncertainty.  Importantly, make time to play together: games, music, goofy TV shows, good movies, and other things where pandemic talk is not allowed.  It will be good for everyone in the house.

Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open.  Talk so your kids will listen, and listen so your kids will talk.  We’re all learning to cope with some drastic changes in our lives, and our teenagers are no exception.  Help them to know that we’re all in this together, and we will get through this, by modeling that attitude in your daily life.  They are learning from the adults in their lives how to respond to adversity, whether they seem to be listening or not.