Shopping for a dress or a suit. Getting an updo or a haircut. Choosing a corsage or a boutonniere. Planning the logistics of the night. Taking selfies and pictures together. In one single event, there are so many elements for teens to look forward to with their peers, but this year, prom is just one more event cancelled.
The pandemic has created countless losses for so many, causing disappointment, frustration, sadness, isolation, and time away from friends and family. For teens, however, the losses they experience during the pandemic are magnified.
Starting from birth parents are the center of their child’s universe. Every positive interaction with their mom, dad, or caregiver fills young children with delight and joy, feeding their self-worth and self-esteem. But as children grow from preschool through elementary school, parents will notice that with each passing year, the importance of friends grows more and more significant to their child. And while the relationship with their parents remains paramount, when children reach adolescence their focus of attention changes from their parents to their peers.
Teens have strong, healthy motives to be with their friends. It is a defining and integral part of their social development. Teenagers become acutely more concerned with what their friends think, what their friends are doing and prefer to be with their friends than with their parents or relatives. Friends can be a source of joy and happiness, providing connection and mutual understanding. But because adolescence can already be a stressful time marked by academic and social demands, friendships are vital as they help teens to cope with the ups and downs of their days.
So what happens when those coping mechanisms are only available remotely?
The isolation that many teens are experiencing from cancelled activities, remote learning, social distancing, and defining events like the prom and graduation may be causing them severe stress, loneliness, and unhappiness. In turn, these troubling emotions can have negative impacts on their learning making it difficult for them to concentrate, stay motivated, and/or persevere through challenges on their own. And at home, parents may be noticing that they are moody, irritable, angry, overly sad, or distant.
In fact, data released by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) late last year shows that adolescent emergency room admissions for mental health concerns like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts have increased by 31% since the year prior.*
So what can parents do to counteract the impacts of the pandemic and help their teens increase their connections and resiliency?
While friends may be at the center of their teen’s universe, parents continue to play a crucial part in their child’s well-being. By helping their teen talk about, process, and understand their experience, parents can help their teen transcend their loneliness and isolation. It is important to understand that although teens may look fully grown, they are still maturing. As Ms. Carol Johnson, LCSW, Director of Staff Development, psychotherapist, and clinical supervisor at Smart Love Family Services, quotes from Smart Love, “Teens are not ready to stand on their own and want and need their parents’ support, even when it seems they may not.”
Ms. Johnson had the following suggestions for parents to support their teens during this difficult time.
Be Positive: One of the most important ways parents can be with their teens is to be positive with them. If teens are struggling in any way, parents may be tempted to correct them or tell them what they can do to improve themselves. Yet this often backfires in that it can cause teens to feel criticized and pressured, which can ultimately make them distance themselves. Parents will have greater success at creating a closer relationship with their teens when they provide positive reflections for the ways the teen is taking care of themselves or doing a good job, even if it may seem small in comparison to their challenges. Negativity is not the way to go.
Be Available: Try to make yourself available to listen to your teen when they are hurting or just want to talk. It may be at the end of the day when they sit on the edge of your bed, in the car, or when you are cooking. When you recognize it’s consistently at a certain time of the day, carve out that time to be with them and listen.
Offer Acceptance and Understanding: Because teens do not yet have the developmental maturity to express themselves the way adults can, their behavior may seem erratic, dramatic, be overly moody, easily annoyed, or agitated. Be sensitive and know these behaviors are responses to the internal sadness, stress, frustration, hurting and isolation they are experiencing.
Show your teen that you care about them by listening to and being interested in their feelings and experience. Let them know you are there to help them get through this and not feel so alone.
Know that if your teen’s behaviors are still concerning even after stepping in to support them, they may need to be evaluated or seek counseling support.
Avoid judgment, criticism, and power struggles: Teens need to feel understood and connected. When parents engage in power struggles or respond with harsh criticism, or have expectations that are too high for their age, these kinds of responses only push teens away. Try to offer choices and ask their opinion about what would be helpful. Rather than trying to talk them out of their feelings, ask them to tell you more about them. If they don’t want to talk at that moment, let them know you are available to talk when they are ready. The most vital takeaway for your teen is that they feel you are taking their feelings seriously and they can count on you to be available to help them.
Offer an activity or time to do something together: When their friend bails on them on zoom, or they are lonely or bored, you can suggest an activity to do together that your teen enjoys, perhaps, ordering a pizza and watching a movie together, baking cookies, washing the dog or the car, rearranging their room, or taking a cooking or drawing class online together.
The aim for parents with teens who are struggling is to help their teen feel connected, understood, and loved. When teens feel like they are heard, they begin to release the emotions that are troubling them. Further, you will be modeling how to handle stress, complicated emotions, and losses – by turning away from isolation and turning towards loving relationships.
As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. explain in Smart Love, “Because true independence is achieved when a child’s inner well-being becomes permanently independent from the ups and downs of everyday life, teens cannot achieve true autonomy by rejecting their parents. To the contrary, adolescents who achieve true independence carry the feelings of closeness and love they share with their parents into the wider world of school, friendships, and recreational activities. Teens need not jump, and should not be pushed out of the parental nest. Your teenager’s awareness that his parents remain available and committed to him is actually the most important ingredient in his evolving conviction that he can regulate his own life so as to make himself happy and to bring happiness to others.”**
There are, however, some behaviors that may necessitate professional help. For example, if you notice dramatic changes in your child’s sleep, behavior, emotions or if they are engaging in self-harm like cutting, substance abuse, or suicidal ideation, speak to a mental health professional immediately. You can contact Smart Love Family Services at 773-665-8052 ext. 4 or go to the nearest emergency room.
*Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020". Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Nov. 2020, (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6945a3.htm)
**Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child". Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. Harvard Common Press. 1999