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This Is the New Normal

A COVID-19 survival guide for parents of tweens and teens.

Source: tifotter/Flickr

Most teenagers would be horrified at the idea of being quarantined with their parents for an unspecified amount of time. And most parents feel the same. And yet, here we are. Everything is being shut down, the hospitals are overcrowded, and we’re being told the best way to stay safe is to hunker down together at home.

Nobody is happy about this, but teenagers are having a particularly hard time of it. Their friends are essential to their health and well-being. They don’t yet have the neurological maturity to maintain a healthy perspective and cope well with the uncertainty and isolation. Your tween or teenager is angry they can’t see their friends. They’re bored and frustrated. They have a hard time channeling their energy. They’re banging about the house looking for someone to blame, and they’re filled with righteous indignation that you're policing the COVID-19 quarantine. Or they're regressing, reverting to habits they've long since outgrown. Or maybe your teenager is sinking into a funk, imagining the worst, unable to manage their dark thoughts.

We will get through this. These suggestions might help your family survive COVID-19 without damaging your relationships, maybe even getting stronger together:

1. Take good care of yourself.

Do what you need to do to keep yourself as healthy as possible. Practice deep breathing. Don’t consume too much media. Take walks. Pay attention to your body’s need for sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Strengthen your resilience as much as possible, both for the sake of good parenting and also for better managing the illness if you get it.

2. Stay connected to friends and extended family.

We all need social connections now, more than ever. Include your teenager in staying connected virtually with grandparents, extended family, and adult friends, as well as their own friends. That will help them keep a healthy perspective on what’s happening, and how others are responding to it.

3. Normalize anxiety.

It is perfectly reasonable and healthy to feel anxious now. You don’t know how long this period will last, how bad it will get, whether your family and friends will be hit by COVID-19, or when jobs and school will come back to normal. Reassure your child that anxiety is a healthy, normal response to a situation like this, and help them see that the challenge now is learning how to cope with that.

4. Discuss coping mechanisms.

Start by doing everything possible to minimize the risks. Right now, that means physical distancing, social cohesion (by phone, Skype, or online), personal hygiene (meticulous hand-washing and the rest of it), and taking care of one’s health (good sleep, nutrition, and exercise habits).

Let your child know how you deal with stress and anxiety, and where you know you fall short in your coping. Share sources that might help with creative projects, stretching exercises, breathing regulation, meditation, or anything else that works for you. Ask your child for suggestions. You may be surprised by their resourcefulness.

5. Respect your teenager’s grief and losses.

Hanging out with friends, playing baseball, participating in the spring recital, or attending parties may not seem important to you, but this is the most important stuff of your teen’s life. Be sensitive and understanding with your child’s misery. It is real.

6. Be positive. Don’t judge. Don’t micro-manage.

Your teenager may be eating too much, not sleeping enough, annoying a sibling, or behaving in other ways that aren’t ideal. One of the reasons it’s hard to be a teenager is the pervasive sense of being judged. Children are blissfully unaware of the perceptions of others, but teens are painfully, brutally aware, and believe that everyone is looking at them with critical, mocking eyes.

So intervene only when truly necessary. Avoid nagging and criticism. Trust your teen to figure out the small stuff, even if it means they’re suffering consequences you could have warned them about. No matter the provocation, make sure your teen feels your positive gaze.

7. Listen.

Let your teenager know you’re available to listen or to do some problem-solving if they want that. When they want to talk, be fully present (no distractions, no devices), and be fully positive (no criticism, no judgment). Offer no solutions, just patient attention and acceptance. Try to avoid giving advice, but instead to ask the questions that lead them to identify the best possible solutions. Any solution they feel they’ve invented will be worth a hundred solutions you’ve given them.

8. Look for humor.

Smile whenever possible. It helps. Connect as frequently as you can to your sense of humor and to your good humor.

9. Restrict COVID-19 news .

You or your teen may become fixated on following what’s being said, written, and posted. That makes sense—you are trying to understand the nature of this terrible situation and get a sense of when and how it will end. Talk together about what’s healthy in terms of news consumption, including which sources might be trustworthy, and which should be avoided or kept to a minimum, as well as how often during the day it’s healthy to check for news.

10. Expect drama.

During the teen years, everything is changing rapidly—your child’s body, brain, hormones, and emotions are all on overdrive, even without this virus and the need for physical distancing, and the cancellation of everything they care about. Even the wisest and most thoughtful teenager will have moments when this feels like too much to handle. Let that be okay. Your teen may try to aggravate you, but you need to be the grown-up here. Do your best to stay calm and give them the reassurance they really need, that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe.

11. Expect power issues and conflict.

The adolescent development research shows it’s good if you argue frequently with your teenager, as long as there’s also love and good humor in your relationship. In fact, the best long-term outcomes for kids occur in families where there’s lots of warmth, as well as plenty of inter-generational discussion. A hot debate is a great way for your teenager to discover what you care about, and why it’s worth caring about. As much as possible, respond thoughtfully to the substance of your child’s issues with you, without reacting to their tone.

12. Expect resentment.

This is a hard time for everyone, and teens don’t have the neurological maturity to keep it in perspective. There will be times when your teenager is angry and frustrated and looking for a target for that. You are it. Even worse, if you are enforcing the guidelines and insisting your child stay home, they are probably furious, even at the same time they’re relieved you’re keeping them safe.

13. Let your teenager be grateful for nasty things.

Your teen may be relieved not to have exams this year, or to be rid of a dreadful teacher, or to have a reason to avoid an annoying friend. That’s okay. You may have some untoward reasons for gratitude too.

14. Rethink the household rules.

This is a good time to have a family discussion about what everyone needs in order for home to be a safe and happy place. Give up as much power and control as you can, including loosening the media rules, without undermining your child’s physical and mental health. Do insist, though, for your own well-being and that of others in your household, that your teenager take some responsibility for managing their moods, not imposing their grouchiness unduly on the rest of the family. (And obviously, the grouchiness rule applies to parents too.)

15. Respect everyone’s need for together-time, and for alone-time .

Some kids will need more closeness and conversation with their parents now than usual, both to reassure them in this stressful time, and also to compensate for not seeing their friends. Others will want to spend time close to parents, but not interacting, each companionably doing their own things. Still others will need privacy, time and space where they can do what they want to do. Your child’s needs may be different than yours; do your best to provide what they need, while also taking care of yourself.

16. Help your child broaden their horizons.

This is a great time to talk with your teenager about their hopes and dreams, and to look for ways to help them explore possibilities they haven’t yet considered.

17. Look for ways to become helpers .

We all feel better when we're contributing to solutions, rather than focusing on problems. By following the recommended rules for personal hygiene and physical distancing, and sacrificing normal pleasurable activities, you’re already doing something important to stop the spread of the virus.

Talk together about what else your family can do, either now or for the future, to help with survival and recovery. Maybe you can give to local food banks. Maybe you can work on a creative project to give to a seniors home after this is all over. Maybe you can contribute encouraging and trustworthy posts to social media. Maybe you can reach out via phone, Skype, or social media to friends and family who are feeling isolated. Once they get into this, your teenager will have more creative ideas than you or I could ever generate.

18. Put it in perspective .

Remind yourself that your child once was a wonderful human being, and is doing their imperfect unconscious best to become that again. When my now-wonderful adult daughter was a teenage nightmare, I found a photo of her as a sweet four-year-old. I taped that photo to the fridge. Remembering who she used to be reminded me of who she really was, and helped me stay strong and loving, which is what she needed most of all.

19. Talk together about the Daily Quarantine Questions:

  • What am I grateful for today?
  • Who am I checking in on, or connecting with today?
  • What expectations of normal am I letting go of today?
  • How am I getting outside today?
  • How am I moving my body today?
  • What beauty am I creating, cultivating, or inviting in today?
  • How am I nourishing my spirit today?

20. Get help .

If you’re dealing with a seriously troubled teenager (drugs, violence, etc.), the extra stressors of this time may push things over the edge. Follow these suggestions, but also get the help you need to provide your teenager with a more solid foundation for moving into adulthood. There are psychological helplines being set up to help troubled kids get through the extra challenges imposed by COVID-19.

Your teenager needs you now more than ever. Do what you can to be kind, patient, and loving, and to model good coping skills. That means taking good care of yourself, being patient with yourself as you think together about the best way through this stressful time for your family.

For more on the developmental science of adolescence, and how that impacts your teenager, see Dan Keating's articles on this topic: