Being a middle or high schooler is hard. So is being the parent of one. These truths are especially glaring during a summer of mask-wearing, physical distancing, missed social opportunities, and a future that is entirely unknown.
While experts agree that continuing to limit social interactions and follow safety protocols remains crucial for minimizing the risk of spreading or contracting COVID, when it comes to adolescents, there are unique risks that accompany the rewards of compliance.
With actively developing prefrontal cortexes, teens may struggle to maintain stamina around mask-wearing and distancing and may demonstrate impulsivity in decision making in social settings. Both of these realities put them (and others) at risk. At the same time, it’s crucial that adolescents are given opportunities for connection and social development to maintain their mental health. For these reasons, it’s imperative that families maintain flexibility and creative thinking in this stressful time, considering mental health needs as an important part of the COVID decision making matrix.
How might we help our adolescents thrive in this difficult summer? Here are some ideas.
1. Do an assessment of each family member’s psychological, physiological, and relational needs.
On a piece of paper, write each family member’s name down the left side. Along the top, make columns for “Psychological” (What is the person’s mood? Is it shifting drastically? Do they seem relatively happy or stressed or angry? Are they isolating?), “Physiological” (How is their sleep and their appetite? Are they getting exercise and fresh air?), and “Relational” (Is this person getting enough social connection? Do they have people they are talking with directly or is all contact done via social media and texting?)
Make notes in each cell of your chart, noting the places where each family member may need some changes or interventions. Brainstorm ways of addressing concerns then initiate non-judgmental conversations about how you might offer help and support.
This is a time of major loss and emotional upset, and it’s crucial that people work to identify their many feelings. Anger, grief, agitation, boredom, and more are normal. For teens who deal with social anxiety, relief may be a common feeling right now given reduced social pressure. Any or all of these can be confusing and overwhelming.
Modeling neutral verbal mentions of your own feelings is a great place to start. (E.g: “I’m feeling really upset and frustrated today. I need to be easy on myself.”) Placing a feeling chart on the refrigerator or instituting brief check-ins at meal times where family members simply name their feelings and a way of addressing them can go a long way. For families that have not regularly discussed emotions, this will feel awkward. Setting aside an evening to watch the Pixar film “Inside Out” might be a good start in situations such as this.
Not naming or acknowledging feelings doesn’t mean they don’t exist, it simply means they are being denied. In periods of prolonged distress and unknown, this pattern can have particularly harmful effects.
In losing access to the kinds of incidental opportunities to interact with people and the world that may have historically helped them work through their emotions, many teens are at risk of developing anxiety or depression. With calls to mental health and suicide hotlines increasing recently (by 116% in some locations), it’s important that parents know the specifics around youth mental health. For thorough and easy to digest tips, start here or here. In general, however, ask questions, listen well, avoid problem solving and, instead, work with your child to find the best help.
4. Make individualized self-soothing plans.
Dedicating a fun family picnic or dinner to the task of creating unique self-care/emotional regulation lists for each family member can go a long way during periods of prolonged distress. Making sure that each list includes 10-20 diverse items, unique to that individual, is crucial. Actions that can be done on an as-needed basis (e.g: run up and down the stairs, take three deep breaths, work with clay, get in the car and yell/swear as loud as possible) should be interspersed with actions that need planning (e.g: have an outing to a park, watch a movie outside with friends, etc).
The ground rules for making these lists must include a no teasing clause. More than ever, families must find ways of honoring the unique needs of each member without any belittling or bullying.
5. Fill your home and yard with “edgy” embodied offerings and encourage healthy technology use.
With so many “no’s” in their lives, it’s important to offer our adolescents environments filled with fun and the kind of “edginess” that they likely crave. This may mean stretching past normal comfort zones. For instance, you could allow Nerf gun/ball battles in and through the house. Invest in archery supplies for the back yard. Get a trampoline or a slack line. Purchase body markers and let them draw all over themselves. Choose less “safe” offerings for family movie nights.
6. Allow for some, although minimal, social risks. Establish a clear and consistent decision-making model for social gatherings.
The following equation is a rough start for how to make decisions about social gatherings. Outdoor gatherings, with small numbers of people, wearing masks, and not sharing any objects are safest, and our ability to stick with the guidelines adds to the safety quotient.
Ventilation/Size of Space + Number of People + Masks + Shared objects + Stamina to comply
Post this information at your door along with a basket of clean masks. Talk ahead of time about how your family will course-correct if you decide to host an outdoor gathering and people end up inside, undistanced, or unmasked. Making, and agreeing on, the plans ahead of time help prevent “during event” stress and mishaps.
7. Trust (and verify). Expect mistakes.
Give your child the opportunity to try a physically distanced, masked get-together with other teens who are trustworthy. Give them some space but pop in a bit early to see how they are doing with the guidelines. As always, resist shaming when mistakes are made. Keep learning together.
8. Do unique things together.
For an ever-growing list of fun things to do during COVID, head here.