Although summer is underway, COVID-19 is still an issue evoking many feelings across the world, especially for our youth. Teens are out of school, but unsure of how their time off will look. Traditionally, many teens use the summer to relax, work, travel, prepare for seasonal sports or marching band, and socialize with others. Summer has always been a much-needed break from the stress and demands that the school year brings.
This summer will be different. As parents, it might feel overwhelming to manage all that is going on in our world. It can be helpful to take time to acknowledge the changes, make space for emotions, and find strategies to encourage your teen to take care of his or her needs in a mindful manner.
Supporting social-emotional needs is always important and vital, especially in young people. As a social worker who specializes in working with adolescents, I would like to offer some of the strategies and methods I have been sharing with parents to support teens during this time.
1. Encourage quality connections.
Developmentally, teens are focused on interpersonal relationships and identity development. Socializing with family and friends through virtual meetups and phone calls is a great way to stay safely connected. Social media has always been popular among teens, but even more so during social distancing, as it has taken over as the primary way people have been communicating. Some experts explain that there is nothing innately wrong with communicating through social media, but that it can become a concern when it is the sole communication platform or when it becomes negative and focused on social comparison (Ungar, 2020).
Navigating how to support this natural need and create safe opportunities is important. You can facilitate a connection in the following ways: a daily check-in with a consistent question or format (e.g., What was something you enjoyed today? Is there something you would do differently?), start a shared journal where your teen writes to you and you write back to your teen, or take time for a walk and talk, or a different activity while talking, so the communication is more comfortable. Even if your teen does not show it, this initiative and effort on your part will not go unnoticed.
It is likely that many of you are now wondering just how effective virtual therapy can really be. Fortunately, the research on the effectiveness of telepsychology is very promising. Studies have shown that people can overcome a variety of problems with telepsychology such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and social fears (Barnett & Godine, 2013).
2. Switch up activities.
For the last three months, school has taken place over screens, and it is likely this format will be a heavy part of learning moving forward. Giving our brains a break from this stimulation and encouraging other activities can be helpful and allows for the cultivation of interests beyond the screen. Spending time outside in nature has been shown to improve emotional well being (McMahana & Estesb, 2015). Take time to ride a bike, go for a walk, plant a garden, or play a yard game.
If going outside is not a safe option, then encourage teens to play board games, search Pinterest to inspire the creation for a new game, reorganize their bedroom, read a book, learn a musical instrument, begin a hobby, do brain puzzles like sudoku or crosswords, create an indoor garden, or draw/utilize an artistic outlet.
3. Schedule and create consistency.
Having a routine creates security and can provide stability in times of hardship. Routines also support self-regulation, healthy habits, maintaining a sense of purpose, and reducing feelings of anxiety (Miller, 2020). Finding some consistency, both in your day and your sleep schedule, are important factors to feeling safe. Finding balance in rest and activity can be incorporated in routine-building as they are both healing and important for healthy functioning. Stick to a bedtime, a wake-up time, and mealtime as consistently as possible to support a daily routine. Work out a schedule of balancing organized structured activities and free time.
4. Open up communication.
Allow space for your teen to grieve, and express his or her frustration or sadness regarding the current situation. Provide your teen with a safe space to share what is working for him or her and what is not. Ask questions regarding what he or she has noticed is helpful during trying times, and what leads to happiness and a sense of calm. This information can be used as a way to reflect and be mindful of what is occurring in one’s body and mind.
Encourage the use of coping strategies that he or she says have worked in the past. At baseline, teens are undergoing change and are full of emotions; COVID-19 might lead to the intensifying or exasperation of some of these feelings. Normalizing and validating these feelings, while giving your teens a voice and space to be expressed, is important not only for teens but for all of us.
5. Make these a routine.
As restrictions begin to lift, establishing how to incorporate these healthy practices into daily life will also be beneficial. Routines and conversations that have been started can continue. Set some guidelines and prepare for the next steps as much as possible so your teen can prepare for new and changing expectations to come.
If you feel that your teen is in need of more support, small group and individual teletherapy is available.
McMahan, E. A., & Estes, D. (2015). The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(6), 507–519. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
Miller, C., & Child Mind Institute. (2020, June 11). Supporting Teenagers and Young Adults During the Coronavirus Crisis. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/supporting-teenagers-and-young-adults-during-the-coronavirus-crisis/
Ungar, M. (2020, March 25). What Teens Need During a Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/202003/what-teens-need-during-pandemic
Karryn Swanson, LCSW, works with adolescents and their families who are experiencing stress, anxiety, life transitions, low self-confidence, a lack of motivation, or learning disabilities. Her focus is to guide teens in maintaining healthy relationships, developing positive coping strategies, shifting thinking and behaviors, or coming into a confident self.