When Upheaval is the Norm – How to Help Your Teen

Teen sitting at the kitchen table looking down with her head in her hand.

For teens across America, the start of the 2020 school year did not resemble the opening of a John Hughes movie. Instead of whimsically tossing a frisbee on the school lawn, teens faced a new reality, adjusting headphones at their home desks or staying six feet apart from their masked friends. So how does this environment really affect them and what can we do to support them?

Like many of us, young people are probably living in their day-to-day world, attempting to turn down the dial on the seemingly unending chaos 2020 has wrought. However, teens live so much in the moment; it is often hard for them to envision the long-term consequences of events like the pandemic. Between COVID-19, the social justice movement, the economy, the impending election and the uncertainty of in-person learning and social events like proms, teens and young adults are faced with a tremendous lack of predictability, prompting substantial anxiety.

While teens and young adults can seem resilient, it’s important not to minimize the feelings they may be struggling with. Parents and caregivers can make a difference by helping their teen or young adult cope with the range of emotions returning to school will inevitably bring up. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Practice open, transparent communication. People often assume teens and young adults can't handle or don't have enough ego strength to manage the bumps and bruises of life and the world. Certainly, teens mature unevenly, but they’re much quicker on the uptake than we generally give them credit for. One of the best things we can do is to talk with our teens, really listen and help validate their feelings and thoughts about the events that are shaping their lives.
  • Share your own feelings and concerns as a start. Teens are famous for not wanting to talk about difficult subjects with their parents. We work with our patient parents to prep them to have those conversations. One approach is to share your own concerns, saying, “You know me as a big sister or as a mom or an aunt or whatever, but I'm also dealing with the changes we see in our world. Let's talk about how we're going to get through today, how we manage missing our friends.” A lot of the anxiety-provoking issues our teens are facing, we adults are also facing, perhaps in a slightly different form. By showing that we have the same concerns, we validate their own feelings and give them the space to respond.
  • Work on your listening skills. If we open up, and our child tells us how scared they are, are we as parents going to be able to manage our own worry around our kid being scared? On the teens’ side, they’re probably wondering whether we are going to take time to truly listen, to understand what they share without rushing to judgment. We must move beyond the idea that our teens and young adults are “just kids.” It’s enough to share and recognize that all our feelings are valid. This pandemic puts us all in unexplored territory, and having our feelings and experiences validated in open communication can be a powerful thing.
  • Seek out support yourself. This is a great opportunity for parents to seek out support for themselves as well. I myself attend Al-Anon or Nar-Anon meetings, virtual or not, but I suggest finding some sort of family support group where you can talk about your experiences and challenges: “I have a teen girl at home, who's now without her friends, not in school, struggling with anxiety.” Sharing with our support network helps us see that we are not alone.
  • Ask open questions and talk things through. Instead of asking, “How are you feeling,” ask about their reaction to plans or events. Then talk it through. “School might be all virtual, or it might be one week on/one week off, it could be all in-person. What do you think about those? What makes you most anxious or least anxious? If we go back to school full time, what do you think will or won't be helpful?”
  • Ask them to role play how they might deal with situations at school. Even though going to school is supposed to be part of their normal routine, and it might be exciting because they haven't been in school since March, it could also be quite terrifying. Role-play different situations. What happens if they're around somebody who has a head cold? How should they respond? What are their feelings about finding themselves in an uncertain and possibly risky situation? What coping skills could they use at school? Parents should work with their young person to develop some sort of self-protective “boundaries” to protect their sense of safety and wellness. It might also help to develop strategies for managing anxiety. If they begin feeling anxious during the school day, what can they do to calm themselves? Some suggestions: Take a deep breath. Close their eyes and count to ten. Practice visualization. Perhaps seek out an empathetic teacher or other adult.
  • Engage with the school. It’s also important for parents to establish open lines of communication with the school, in consultation with the teen. At what point does it make sense for a parent to step in and suggest a change?
  • Parents must also learn to manage their own expectations. Things have changed, and our expectations need to change as well. This is where a parent support group could be useful. COVID-19 has shifted many parents’ perspectives. Now they’re willing to have their college-bound child take a year off or take classes at Community College instead of attending the big, out of state school. Again, it really goes back to clear communication. If the parent can say, “I was hoping you'd go to college, and yet I'm also scared that you might do that.” Nine times out of 10, the teen will probably agree. That is the start of a good, honest conversation.

For our teens at Caron, we've talked a lot in group sessions about what school does or doesn't look like, whether it’s all virtual or takes place “in the real world.” Obviously, the focus is managing that anxiety as a young person trying to manage their early recovery. In “normal times” we would do a lot of work around the social setting, establishing healthy boundaries and helping them protect their recovery in the face of peer pressure and exposure to substances.

When we were in quarantine, the conversation shifted to protecting their recovery differently during a time of isolation. It’s not so much about struggling with social interactions as it is about seeking support without leaving the home or managing the expectations of ourselves and our parents when it comes to schoolwork and scholastic achievement. Teens have the power within themselves to thrive in any circumstance. We as parents need to be open and honest with them about our true feelings, which can help give our teens a healthy head start.

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