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Talking to Your Teenager About COVID-19

Talking to Your Teenager About COVID-19

In an ideal world, teens would seek their parents’ advice and comfort during troubling times. But, we know that’s not always the case. Parents are often the last people teenagers want to talk to when they’re stressed. And, even if they appear to be adjusting well, teenagers are likely being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This may be the first substantial crisis of their lifetime, and it is altering typical adolescent experiences such as playing sports or attending group activities. Beyond the disappointment of canceled events and extracurriculars, social distancing and quarantine likely interfere with the basic developmental needs of teenagers, who are at a stage in life when they are invested in making social connections and in becoming increasingly independent from parents. So, the unquestionable necessity of social distancing is likely to throw these developmental patterns out of whack in ways that could take a toll on teenagers’ mental health, behavior, and social-emotional growth. 

Talkative or not, teenagers do different things to let us know how they feel. Some channel frustration or boredom into learning TikTok dances or baking or even binge-watching TV. Others may act out or grow moodier.

Parents and caregivers of teenagers with disabilities face unique challenges as a result of COVID-19. For example, while social distancing has been widely promoted as the best strategy to avoid transmission, that advice may not be realistic for families of teenagers with disabilities. Teenagers with disabilities may need to be in close contact with caregivers or medical professionals. Also, children’s clinical services and other treatments have been disrupted as a result of the closures of schools, medical settings, and caregiving agencies. In addition, while youth and young adults overall seem to be less likely to show symptoms of COVID-19, those with disabilities may fall into the “high risk” category due to health conditions. This is likely to further increase parent stress and fear related to infection. Stressors like these intensify enacted or perceived experiences of stigma and discrimination.

Regardless of each family’s individual situation, transparent communication with teenagers and youth helps them to feel safe and grounded. But, bottom line, parents know their children best. If you feel like something’s off, consider these approaches to communicate with your teenager about COVID-19. Here are four tips that may be beneficial for you as you help your children cope with what’s happening around the world:

1. Be aware of your own stress and anxiety.

Children of all ages follow your cues and pick up on your stress. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. Take care of your body: it is scientifically proven that meditation, stretching, healthy eating, and lots of sleep can help to reduce stress. Make sure to connect with others: talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you’re feeling. And, ultimately, remember to take a break, go for a walk. Do whatever you need to do to promote your own positive mindset before you sit down and talk to your child.

2. Start by asking what your child already knows and be conscious of the media’s framing of current events and how that may affect your child.

We seem to be stuck in a nonstop news cycle about COVID-19. Many parents are understandably sharing concerns too — at least among friends and families. It’s also possible that teenagers are talking to their own friends and surfing the web and social media sites to gather information, including potential misinformation. Just be conscious that your child may have heard or read things they don’t quite understand and be a good listener. 

3. Provide honest and accurate information.

For teenagers, knowledge is power. Teenagers may imagine things far worse than they actually are, so be calm and offer reassurance. It isn’t necessary to go into more detail than your child is asking for. It’s okay to not know the answer to a question. Tell your child you’ll try to find an answer and address the question later. Most importantly, expect this to be an ongoing conversation and continue to encourage your child to come to you with questions. 

4.  Promote positive coping skills.

The amount of information available can be overwhelming. Make sure to model the same positive coping that you’re recommending to your child. Maybe even consider what your teen can control and provide them with choices. Can they decide what’s for dinner tonight or can they plan the weekly menu? Adding some structure to your family life can also help each day feel more normal. The bottom line, make a plan as a family to get through this bizarre and unprecedented time together. 

Despite all of these steps and tips, It can still be very hard to know how to spark conversation with your teenager or to know what questions to ask that will actually let you in on how they are doing. Remember that just asking any questions at all reminds your child that you care. If you’re feeling lost on where to start, here are some basic questions you can ask your child that might get the ball rolling:

    • How are you feeling today, really? Physically and mentally.
    • What's taking up most of your headspace right now?
    • Have you been sleeping alright? How can you improve your sleep?
    • What did you do today that made you feel good?
    • What's something you're looking forward to in the next few days?
    • What's something you can do today that would make you feel good?
    • What are you grateful for right now?

To conclude, teenagers are hungry for exploration, social connection, and independence – the kinds of developmental drives that have become directly threatened by the social-distancing measures that are essential for public health. So, despite widespread uncertainty surrounding the future, it is essential that we all look out for adolescents, be sympathetic to their frustrations, and make sure that they have the resources and supports in place for optimal development. And, while it’s important to support your child, remember that all of us - parents and children alike - are likely to be struggling during these unprecedented times. While we are separated physically, we still have the opportunity to connect with strangers and reconnect with loved ones. Finding a sense of sameness through completely separate experiences can provide comfort and meaning in a strange time. In fact, it is a good thing that crises inadvertently connect us, force us to reflect on our experiences, and make us practice positive coping methods. 

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