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Pandemic practicalities and how to help teenagers manage time at home

It’s May and many of us have fond memories of springtime when we were in high school. There was some stress from exams and final papers to be sure, but also more outdoor activities, sports, banquets or awards assemblies, proms, and most of all, looking forward to the summer. High school students today, however, have lost all of that. Seemingly in an instant, they are confined at home, with little access to friends, no organized sports, arts, music, journalism, or other activities. Education via teleconferencing is of variable quality and is no substitute for the interactive learning with other students and a skilled educator. Most of all, our students face an uncertain future. It is especially difficult for teens to foresee or plan for a future with the current disruption. Adolescents may well not be able to deal with these multiple concerns, so it’s predictable and understandable that many high school students are struggling with anxiety and depressed mood. Even before the pandemic adolescents had high rates of clinical anxiety and depression. We are facing an enormous mental health crisis.

As parents there’s a lot we can do to help support our teens. Here are some practical tips to alleviate anxiety and promote stability during this uncertain time.

Create a schedule. Maintaining a regular schedule can provide a sense of stability for the whole family. Teens still have school; many parents are working and those form the basic skeleton of the day. Online learning can be draining so I suggest periodic breaks, at least 15 minutes of stretching, running in place, or going outside (if possible) every two hours or so. Teens with attentional issue may need more frequent breaks.  Add structured time for meditation, pleasant events, and physical activity. Many schools, online programs, and apps can support a meditation practice.  At the minimum we can teach our children to take just a few minutes to breathe deeply as a break from the stresses of the day. I am partial to Dr. Andrew Weil’s simple 4-7-8 approach, breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds, and then exhaling very slowly for eight seconds.  I can feel a sense of relaxation at about number five during the exhale. This small exercise is helpful to everyone and can quell anxiety. Evenings might be a time to reclaim long-forgotten family activities from when the teens were younger: baking, doing puzzles, working on family history projects, or even watching television together can foster connection and emphasize the family as foundational.

Limit access to the news. Normally I think that high schoolers learn about government and global issues and develop a critical eye from reading or watching the news. Right now, however, it can be overwhelming to see the stories, not only of death and pain but also unemployment and the plight of our most vulnerable citizens. You can share with your teen why watching too much coronavirus or political news can be demoralizing. Everyone is different, but 30 minutes is plenty of time to catch up on the news and you can add some time for discussion. You can also help yourself and your teen by being a good role model of having boundaries about watching the news.

Help them stay connected. Teens can continue to find ways to relate to their friends even during this time of social distancing and sheltering in place. In the past I viewed too much time on social media as destructive, especially to young women. However, in the current situation, social media can, if used responsibly, provide a sense of connection, shared goals, and distraction. I recommend being more flexible about screen time.  Email, texts, and even writing letters will help (and older relatives will appreciate the letters). In addition to connections to their friends, we can encourage teens to form connections to the larger community. We’ve seen that teens can be creative and generous by volunteering, whether making masks, raising money for charity online or contributing art work.

Foster self-efficacy. In isolation, it is can be difficult for teenagers to feel any sense of competence other than academics. Teens with learning differences may be having an especially difficult time adjusting to virtual learning. Assign tasks at home, including daily chores and longer-term ones like organizing family photos, building a table, creating new menus, and so on.  Older teens can help their siblings or cousins with schoolwork. Ask your high schoolers how they think they can help out; their creativity may surprise you. All these activities help the family and teens still appreciate your acknowledgment of a job well done. Learning a new skill or completing a project also elicits the “I’ve got this” feeling, that leads to improved mood and can foster independence.

Featured Image Credit: by Anastasia Gepp via Pixabay

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