How to Help Teens Find a “New Normal”

Despite slow reopening of the nation, intense anxiety remains.

Posted May 31, 2020

Source: iStock

Perhaps the buzz phrase any more in all of my therapy sessions with clients surrounds the notion of “the new normal.” With much of my caseload being comprised of teens and young adults for whom social interaction is a key facet of their identity, social distancing and quarantine has been particularly challenging for this group.

One of the major themes we’ve discussed is how they can create a “new normal” that honors parts of their identity without trapping them at home all hours. A small but impactful intervention has involved the idea of one novel “excursion” or treat per day. For example, with many restaurants moving to curbside and takeout, a way of both supporting small local businesses and giving teens something to do can involve a weekly trip to pick up a pizza for the family dinner or picking up baked goods from a local bakery for a weekend breakfast. If you add in a coffee from a drive-through once a week, that’s two novel excursions for them to look forward to.

The idea of what to look forward to is indeed another common therapy theme that comes up weekly. For many teens, they missed their high school graduations, their spring term of freshman year, spring break in Cancun, and countless other rewards for their hard work. Forgoing all of these with uncertainty as to when they can get back to real life has caused significant distress. As such, it has been key to discuss checking one’s expectations at the door and savoring the little things.

Just a few weeks ago, I put a picnic blanket in my online checkout basket and within hours it had sold out. It makes sense; many are having social distancing gatherings in parks and backyards. This is yet another helpful way of staying in touch with friends and loved ones while remaining safe and healthy. As the weather has been improving in many parts of the nation and world, sunshine has made it much more feasible for individuals to go for walks, spend time outside in their backyards or front porches, and savor the small things such as time to read a book, do arts and crafts, and find peace in simple activities.

A key element in all of this is maintaining one’s general well-being. I often discuss the notion of the wellness “trifecta.” This includes solid sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise—nothing revolutionary, but critical nonetheless. For many teens and young adults who have been thrown off of their normal schedules, regular sleep has been the first thing to go. As such, trying to maintain as much of a “regular” schedule when they aren’t required to wake up at the crack of dawn can take some discipline and hard work.

The same goes for diet and exercise. Without PE classes or organized sports and low mood, it can be easy for teens to be sedentary in front of a screen all day while eating less than ideal foods. While teens needn’t necessarily wake up at 6 a.m., limiting them to at least getting up by 9 or 10 a.m. can be a coup in and of itself. As most parents and teen therapists know, a typical teen’s wakeup time during quarantine often regularly stretches past the noon hour.

A sample schedule I have been sharing with teens looks as follows (with the idea of a daily wake by 10 a.m. and lights out by midnight):

Monday: Walk the dog!

Tuesday: Yoga or exercise day! Reward: Coffee or tea from favorite local spot

Wednesday: Social distancing walk with a friend

Thursday: Walk the dog!

Friday: Pizza movie night with family (go pick up the pizza!). Or try one of the new drive-in theatres popping up around the country.

Saturday: Social distancing time in a park or backyard with neighbors or friends

Sunday: Spiritual Day! Go for a hike in nature, attend church online, do yoga and meditation. Consider grabbing cinnamon rolls or muffins at a local bakery for a rejuvenating day.

As many teens are looking to further fill their days, we have discussed online classes for getting ahead at school (making next academic year less stressful), cooking a few times a week for the family (great skill for before they head off to college!), and daily exercise routines that involve stretches, walks or jogs. Ultimately, we are mimicking the schedule parents wish their kids had over the summer but actually putting these plans into action!

Across the globe, there is still an incredible amount of unknowns regarding COVID-19 and how it will continue to impact us. Will we keep having to go back into quarantine? How long will schools stay closed? Will we ever be able to go to a concert or movie theatre ever again? Learning to adopt a “new normal” can help teens (and their parents) adjust their expectations and find small moments of joy in the here and now.