HOW TO SUPPORT TEENAGERS DURING THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS
From learning about ‘social distancing’ to wondering what the future holds, the younger members of your family probably have as many questions about COVID-19 (also known as coronavirus) as you do. Here are some ways to help them feel heard and supported.
Ask a teenager what their worst nightmare is and many will probably say it’s being stuck at home with their parents all weekend.
Young people thrive on social connection. Having that taken away due to COVID-19 and the latest government guidelines on social distancing, isolation and lockdowns will likely make them feel confused and frustrated over the coming weeks and months.
“During adolescence, the strength of relationships to individuals outside of the family become stronger as young people continue to develop their identity and prepare for life as an adult,” says Rupert Saunders, senior clinical advisor at Headspace. “Increased social distance because of COVID-19 may add some unique challenges for young people.”
Here’s a guide to understanding what your teens might be feeling, plus some practical ways to help them – and you – navigate these challenging times.
TEENS AND STRESS WITH A DEVELOPING BRAIN
During times of drastic change, teens cope differently to adults, says Saunders, and that difference comes down to two key factors.
“Firstly, the part of the brain that helps to calm and soothe us is still developing well into our twenties, so even older children may need help from an adult when they experience distress.
“Secondly, the more experience a person has of stress, the better they become at coping with it. Teens may have less experience of stress in response to crisis, so again will need some help.”
We also need to self-regulate our behaviour as parents, says Rita Princi-Hubbard, a psychologist and director of the Institute for Neuroscience and Education. “If your teenager sees you being angry or withdrawn, they may mirror that behaviour.”
So, what can we do to help our young people feel safe during this stressful time?
BE HONEST AND BUILD RESILIENCY
“Honest communication is important,” says Saunders. “If you ignore what’s happening or refuse to talk about it, there’s a risk your teenager will close themselves off to discussing difficult situations with you in the future.”
Use language they understand to open up the conversation. “It’s important not to talk down to teenagers,” says Princi-Hubbard. Allow them to talk and ask questions, and correct any misinformation they might have heard. “Teenagers spend a lot of time on social media and may have already read and heard a lot about COVID-19.”
It's a good idea to encourage your teen to use credible, reliable sources, including:
BE OPEN AND STAY CONNECTED
“Mirror your child’s feelings so they see how you’re dealing with what’s happening,” says Saunders. “Saying things like ‘I’m sad we’re missing the footy game, too, mate’ helps to create a connection and lets them know it’s okay to be angry and frustrated.”
Princi-Hubbard agrees, adding it also helps to offer a coping strategy during this difficult time. “If they say they’re annoyed or angry, ask them what they could do to feel better.”
Prompt your teen to think about how they’d usually cheer themselves up. It could be watching a movie, listening to music, reading a book, playing a video game or jumping on a video call with their best mate. “Reminding them there are things that can make them feel good puts them back in control,” adds Princi-Hubbard.
BE POSITIVE AND STAY CALM
While COVID-19 is making life feel overwhelming, unsettling and unpredictable, there’s still plenty to feel good about, for some families this is actually an opportunity to spend more time together. When you’ve discussed what’s happening in the world, don’t be afraid to move on to something else, like suggesting you watch their favourite Netflix show or getting some fresh air together.
TEENS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING
One of the biggest changes we’ve had to adapt to in recent weeks is the introduction of social distancing – that is, keeping a physical distance of 1.5 metres between ourselves and others.
The latest guidelines recommend students stay home from universities, and have led to the closure of cafes, gyms, and even some beaches – many of the places young people go to socialise and let off steam. This is especially tough developmentally for teens.
“Teens go through a period of individuation, when they start to distance themselves from their family and become more independent,” says Saunders. “They’re building stronger relationships to peers and finding out who they are. They’re experiencing peer pressure and different social dynamics. In times of social distancing or isolation, when teens can’t see their friends, parents might see reactions of anger, confusion and frustration.”
Even losing the structure of something like high school can have a negative impact on young adults.
“For young people, not attending school can lead to the disruption of routine, social connection with their peers and the sense of achievement that comes from completing small tasks like assignments,” says Saunders. “These things are important to maintaining positive mental health, so continue them at home, where possible.”
TIPS FOR SOCIAL DISTANICING
Here are some practical ways to help teens cope with social distancing:
- Keep doing what you can: If the latest advice on isolation and lockdowns doesn’t rule out a favourite activity, do it! Encourage your teen to play some basketball or footy with you in the garden, or head out for a run or walk.
- Get online: If there are people your teenager wants to see, suggest they set up a FaceTime, Skype or Zoom chat.
- Put them in control: Don’t try too hard to organise your teens. Instead ask them what they want to do. Give them options but let them lead the conversation so they can have a sense of control. Consider relaxing screen-time rules a bit, and ask them for help with jobs around the house. Help them to feel useful and busy.
- Have the tough conversations: As our state borders close and communities go into lockdown, family life will have to adapt. Your teenagers might not be happy about being stuck at home – and, let’s face it, neither may you. But as tempers are tested and frustrations are aired, it’s important to keep communicating. And that means tackling the tough subjects, say both experts, even if they make you uncomfortable.
“Teenagers want to be part of the conversation,” says Princi-Hubbard. “Saying nothing is a risk as they’re likely to be told something about COVID-19 by a friend, or even overhear something at the supermarket. Be realistic and accurate. Respect the fact they probably already know a lot.”
Isolating at home and losing many of their social freedoms will likely invoke some highly emotional reactions from older children and teenagers. Princi-Hubbard warns not to rise to the bait and not to talk down to family members who are struggling.
HOW TO DEFUSE A TENSE CONVERSATION
Here are some suggestions that might help to calm a tense conversation:
- Instead of saying “Calm down!”, say… “I know you’re feeling stressed. I’m stressed, too. Can we take a minute? Do you want some time to yourself? What can I do to help you feel better?”
- Instead of saying “Don’t get angry!”, say… “I know you’re annoyed. I am, too. What can we do to change it?”
- Instead of saying “We have to talk”, say… “Would you like to talk about anything? It’s okay if you don’t. But I’m here if you change your mind.”
FOCUSING ON THE FUTURE
With new information and guidelines around COVID-19 coming out almost daily, it’s hard to predict what’s next. By acknowledging the changes taking place in your family’s life, you’re also telling them this situation is serious. You can help to ease any feelings of anxiety this may trigger by being open and positive about the future.
Try the following techniques:
- Celebrate the wins: When a vaccine is being trialled, or a country reports a drop in confirmed cases, tell your family about it.
- Focus on the positives: Talk about the importance of being healthy, happy and together. Even a sunny day or a great movie can remind us that life goes on.
- Feel your emotions, then move on: Telling someone to “cheer up” when they’re feeling sad rarely helps. Allow your child to vent their frustrations about social distancing and other challenges. Once they feel heard, move on to another topic.
- Have perspective: Karen Fletcher, clinical director at national mental health charity SANE Australia, says that a bit of perspective can also help to reduce stress. “While we’re in unprecedented times it’s good to remember that society survives. There are good people out there who are trying to help the situation. Humans are resilient,” she explains.
WHERE TO FIND EXPERT HELP
If you’re concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of your child, you can:
- Talk to a GP
- Call Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Visit Headspace.org.au for free online and telephone support and counselling for young people aged 12–25 and their families and friends. You can get one-on-one support or join a group chat run by a clinician.
If you or your child is feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published April 2020
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