Helping teens in the time of COVID-19

Helping teens in the time of COVID-19

By Chuck Potrykus, MA, LMHC, Behavioral Medicine provider at PacMed Canyon Park

As we parents and caregivers seek to find answers about living with COVID-19, we also may find ourselves needing help with the teens in our lives. They likely have questions and concerns that are unique to their stage in life, and we want to support them in ways that connect with where they are at.

More than big children, not quite small adults
It’s important to first distinguish that teens are unique from children in several ways. For starters, teens have awareness of what is happening in the world—and seek and exchange information with their friends, the Internet and other media. It’s vital to be factual and honest with them about what they’re hearing and seeing, not pretend it doesn’t exist.

At the same time, we need to begin treating them as equals: Ask questions and be curious about their views, rather than projecting our own fears or judgements onto them. They have independent minds and points of view. It’s important to not assume that we know what they’re thinking. Engaging in this way can help guide critical thinking for teens, which is essential to their emotional processing.

Let’s tackle this together
Be willing to say, “I don’t know, but let’s look for the answer together.” Similarly, rethink the idea of being “a rock,” that stable, reliable, in-control person for them. A position of constant strength may seem like the right way to create stability for our children, but for teens this can make you seem distant. We need to be human to validate the uncomfortable emotions your teens are having. When you are transparent about how you’re feeling, your kids take that as permission to express themselves too. Practicing vulnerability actually creates the kind of stability kids need from authority figures.

Be sure to validate your teen’s thoughts and emotions by listening closely, nodding your head and saying things like, “I can see how that would feel” or “That makes sense” and “Yeah, I hear what you’re saying.” By using validating affirmations, we get away from changing our kids’ minds and move alongside them, admitting that it’s tough and that’s ok. When kids are afraid, they need to be heard more than corrected.

Help teens seek emotional balance
During this time, we all may feel our emotional balance veering off center. In your household, try to walk the middle path between the two sides of “It feels scary/our world is so different right now” and “There are good things happening, things that are working and growing.” Acknowledging both emotional realms of fear and hope helps steer the conversation toward reality, rather than propaganda.

End and begin each day with each member of the family sharing a few things they can be grateful for, something they learned. Studies show spoken gratitude creates resiliency, especially during a crisis.

Help teens stick with social distancing
Adolescence is the perfect storm when it comes to social distancing. Teens are differentiating from parents, forming important face-to-face social and romantic connections and coming up with unique ideas and beliefs. Teens feel invincible. And because their brains are still developing, logical judgement often takes a backseat to emotional and impulsive behavior.

All of this is normal, and yet at odds with what’s going on in our world today. A few things we parents can do to help them stick with social distancing measures:

  • Put yourself in their shoes, be sympathetic and express your sympathy to your child. Allow them to grieve the loss of connections and real-life social experiences.

  • Collaborate with your teen as they find ways to bridge the gap between what is possible and what is impossible during this time. Brainstorm creative ways to be connected with friends while being physically distant. Lean on their adept knowledge of technology.

  • Help them learn empathy, a desired trait in a healthy adult. Feeling empathy and taking action helps teens feel empowered. Show them that they’re potential “delivery systems” of the virus to older people like grandparents or teachers. Help them practice empathy by calling their grandparents more often or writing favorite quotes to residents of nursing homes. The more real that vulnerable populations become to younger people, the more likely they can see their role in “saving the world.”

Create a home field advantage
Watch your own media consumption so you can guide your kids to turn off their devices. Constant exposure to news of doom and gloom inevitably creates more anxiety and depression for yourself and them. Try turning off your phone and placing it in a shoebox in the middle of the room along with their phones. Turn on music, not the radio, filling the space with the different emotional experiences of a home, instead of a newsroom.

Focus on the aspects of your lives you do have control over and de-emphasize the aspects of the world where there is no control. Explore these ideas:

  • Create a daily schedule that includes exercise, outside time and jobs, even if the jobs are not essential. Also make sure bedtime and when you get up are as consistent as possible. Studies show that consistent tasks, routines and daily maintenance help people cope through a long, slow crisis much better than rumination, excessive sleep and boredom.

  • Ease up on academic growth and teach life skills: budgeting, cooking, sewing, gardening, music, construction, auto maintenance, art. Teens need these essential life skills, and they’re not usually taught in school. Right now is the perfect time to fill in their “educational gaps.”

Surviving something like this doesn’t just mean avoiding the virus, washing hands and social distancing. The real battle is in our minds and hearts. The choice exists for us to live in constant fear and anxiety or to see this as an opportunity to build inward with our families and ourselves—to not miss the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to try something new, to live differently, more slowly, more simply.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” —Haruki Murakami, author



Read more about PacMed's response to COVID-19.


Chuck Potrykus, MA, LMHC, is a Behavioral Medicine provider with Pacific Medical Centers. He works with patients who seek care at our Canyon Park clinic in Bothell.