The Third Shift

Part 3: Mothers working three shifts can still help their children.

Posted Nov 17, 2020

In two previous posts, I outlined the stressors on mothers during the pandemic, describing their condition as working three shifts—one at work, one with the normal household and childcare responsibilities, and the third one during this pandemic, supervising education, scheduling and rescheduling work and school schedules. This post presents ideas about how to help our children, especially teenagers.

The pandemic is damaging to teenagers’ mental health in many ways. One major element of adolescent development is socialization. Virtual learning and disrupted, uncertain schedules are interfering with this process.

Teens are not only being deprived of traditional education but also access to their friends. It is no surprise that symptoms of depression and anxiety are increasing; currently, 50 percent of Americans overall say that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health.

So what to do to help our teens? I am addressing mothers today because they have been most negatively impacted by the pandemic, but these principles apply to all parents. My goal in this post is to discuss foundations, values, and role modeling. The last thing a mother wants right now is to be told to do more, think more, learn more. In contrast, I want us to focus on how we can value and support what exists now.

Let’s begin with depression in teens. Depression is a disorder of “disconnection” and can lead to withdrawal, isolation, and sadness. One major goal, therefore, is to reestablish or deepen your connection with your teens.

What really matters is a solid family foundation. No matter what your family constellation, you can do your best to focus on open communication with your child and work to strengthen it. Listening with your full attention, not talking, is the key. Follow your teen’s conversation with nonjudgmental questions. You may be tempted to lecture them if subjects like alcohol and sex come up, but try not to. Lecturing will shut down communication; your teen will drift off or shrug. 

Despite all your efforts, your child may not know what to say or how to say it, which may result in saying nothing at all. But that is OK. Silence does not mean anger or rejection. It is simply their way of communicating that there is too much to think about or that talking with you at any given time is not their top priority. Patience, there will be other times. If they are texting their friends instead, be happy that they are reaching out for other types of connection.

The second value is acceptance. You can start by validating your teen’s feelings, helping them to express their concerns. Acceptance also means knowing that your teen may not share all your opinions; you can still validate these differences. Validation shows your teen that you are taking them seriously and grasp the essence of what they are trying to say. 

Teens are also very sensitive to being "different," whatever that difference may be. Understand that they feel extremely vulnerable about their differences. Family support of overweight teens and LGBTQIA teens, for example—two groups that are harassed and maligned by many segments of society—has been shown to reduce the likelihood of depression. I cannot emphasize this enough. Teens who feel that their family accepts them with unwavering support are much better able to withstand and deal with the cruelty that occurs all too often.

Finally, you can be a teacher and a role model of distress tolerance and self-compassion. Distress tolerance is the ability to accept negative or complex feelings without needing to change them immediately, in yourself or in your children. Learning distress tolerance early on is a valuable skill for children and especially adolescents. 

As much as you may want to intervene, it is actually beneficial for your teen that you refrain. You can let them know that negative emotions are not permanent; they will pass. As difficult as it can be, not all problems are solvable, and a better way is to be there for support. Teens usually know their own strengths and weaknesses, but in times of trauma, it is helpful to hear a parent’s perspective to remind them. Acknowledge challenges they have overcome and how they overcame them. Even during this worldwide trauma, building on a teen’s existing strengths can help them increase distress tolerance.

In addition, sharing some of your difficult feelings with your teen will show them that you are still able to push through hard times, modeling what distress tolerance can look like. Remember, though, that the goal here is to show coping, not that all is well nor that you can’t manage. If you feel that you cannot manage, it's better to reach out to a partner or friend or get professional help.

It is increasingly difficult to put any positive light on our current situation. We are all going through this pandemic, and we are all tired. But families working together can get through tough times and, yes, even come out stronger. 

So take a minute to appreciate your family, breathe deeply, and show yourself compassion. You might want to read Part 2 about kindness to yourself and letting go of harsh self-criticism. If you demonstrate the values of communication, acceptance, and compassion, trust that your teens notice. Because they do.