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Tips for supporting teens in the time of coronavirus

By Dr. Ashok Shimoji-Krishnan, Kaiser Permanente

A lot can change in a few weeks or a month. The level of change that the world has seen since news of the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. Adults have experienced historic ups and downs over the past decades: the Gulf War, the HIV/ AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and more; but adolescents have not seen as much turmoil, and for some, this is the first real event that has had a lasting impact on them, both physically and emotionally. 

Families are stuck at home due to the illness and safety measures put in place to prevent others from getting ill. For parents, the change in daily work requirements — going from in-person to work from home, with kids under foot, or being out of a job altogether — is challenging, but, in some cases, manageable.

For adolescents, however, the change in routine may be catastrophic. For those who have been preparing to shift from high school to college, the loss of upcoming markers of transition — sports seasons, prom, graduation, college visits — may be a hard pill to swallow. These transitional events are seminal points that many teens have looked forward to all through their high school career, and for this year’s seniors, those events have been canceled. It can lead to a sense of incompletion, feelings of listlessness and even more difficulty with the transition from high school to college.

Teens stuck at home are facing an uncertain reality. Each day that goes by without a clear plan results in more uncertainty, anxiety and stress.

With adolescents having online school, of varying intensity based on their schools’ means, not only is their primary structure gone, but there isn’t a viable replacement. Adolescents are not only overwhelmed due to all the uncertainty — AP exams, finals, graduation — but they’re bored, which further extends their stress levels. I have had adolescents comment how they “don’t know what to expect” or “are more stressed with not knowing how things are going to go.” Said one graduating senior, “I just want to know when I can go back to my regular life.”

As parents, it is essential to be a support in this challenging time. Most adolescents are unlikely to go to their parents with their concerns, but there are several ways to help:

  1. Check in with your adolescent regularly (2-3 times a week) and make yourself available. While an adolescent may not take you up on your offer to talk, knowing you’re there confirms for the teen that they have a support network on call. 

  2. Acknowledge and validate your adolescent’s thoughts and feelings. For most of us, feeling that we are heard is enough to calm some of the anxieties.

  3. Don’t try to fix your adolescent’s problems, but be a sounding board. Ask if they want to vent or if they want you to suggest solutions — knowing what an adolescent may need from you means you can meet their needs. 

  4. Help your adolescent set up a schedule that works for them while at home. Make sure there is built-in time for seeing friends virtually and fun activities alongside chores and learning opportunities.

  5. For those who are academically inclined, look into free courses online to supplement your adolescent’s learning opportunities. 

  6. If your teen needs additional support, reach out to individuals they trust, which could be other family members, friends’ parents, religious or (if needed) medical personnel. These trusted adults may be able to talk to and help your adolescent discuss their concerns.

  7. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers; this is an unprecedented situation for all of us. Knowing that we, as parents, have anxieties and uncertainties helps to normalize an adolescents’ response. However, don’t belabor your own anxieties as it can worsen the stress felt by an adolescent. 

While most of us aren’t certain how this will play out in the long run, we can support our adolescents as they traverse the challenges brought forth by coronavirus. Adolescents will face many unknowns during their lifetime, but by helping them navigate this difficult situation, they will have a better sense of how to manage future uncertainties, which makes them stronger in the long run. 

Dr. Ashok Shimoji-Krishnan is chief of adolescent psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente.

More ideas and support:

Tips for supporting young children amid the coronavirus crisis

How families can stay connected and support one another

Bring social and emotional learning (SEL) to your at-home lessons

About the Author

Dr. Ashok Shimoji-Krishnan, Kaiser Permanente