When Gov. Mike DeWine announced on April 20 that Ohio K-12 schools would not re-open for the rest of the year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the news was not necessarily a surprise. Yet, it still came with a sense of loss, perhaps especially for teenagers. More so than younger children, teens are acutely aware of the lost time with friends and the milestones that will be missed, and may experience a true sense of despair that rites of passage – the last band concert, the state track meet, prom and commencement – will not happen.
For parents looking for guidance, Drs. Katrina Lindsay and Geoffrey Putt, pediatric psychologists at Akron Children’s Hospital, share their thoughts.
Teens, by their nature, focus on the now
“We are in unprecedented times and I think a lot of parents are now serving as their child’s academic coach, their counselor-in-chief, entertainer and their major social outlet,” said Dr. Lindsay. “So, I think a lot of parents feel like they’re kind of building the plane while they fly it.”
Both doctors have been hearing from parents who say their teens are moody and there is just a lot of tension in the house with everyone home more often, in many cases, all day long.
“Parents need to remind themselves fairly often where teens are developmentally,” said Dr. Putt. “You can certainly talk about better days ahead but teens, by their nature, are impulsive and feel things very immediately and personally. They may not be able to envision things will be better because they are so focused on what they are missing out on right now.”
Parents should stay up on the latest communications from schools. Some schools are postponing rather than cancelling proms and commencement ceremonies or have announced alternative approaches to have them.
The Ohio Department of Health (coronavirus.ohio.gov) remains the best source of information on the virus and the state’s response, including localized outbreaks and spikes in cases by county.
The strong pull of friendship
When schools closed, teens not only lost their routines, in-person contact with teachers, their sports and extra-curricular activities but also the joy of hanging out with friends.
“I know many adults were angered by the images of teens on the beach during spring break and some continue to express anger when they see clusters of kids in the streets or the parks,” said Dr. Lindsay. “Again, it’s important to remember, developmentally, how important peers are in the lives of young people and how they don’t always think of long-term consequences. There are ways to get together creatively and safely following the 6-foot social distancing guidelines all Americans are being asked to follow. I’ve seen teens sitting in cars in empty parking lots carrying on conversations.”
Of course, teens today are at huge advantage with the technology – keeping in touch by texting, Google hangouts, social media.
Some teens are ‘beyond sad, acting out’
“It’s a normal response for teens to be sad about their cancelled trip or the loss of their senior year, which really is the capstone for athletes and musicians and others who have been working toward personal goals,” said Dr. Putt.
It sounds rather simplistic, but Dr. Putt said the best thing a parent can do is to be available and to listen.
Being present and mindful for conversations like this may be especially difficult for parents who are now working from home, glued to a laptop screen and smartphone. So, regular “check in” conversations with teens may best be planned for quiet times, or during a walk or meal when texts, calls and emails can be ignored.
How to break up the tension
A moody teenager may be the obvious focus of a tense household, but parents may also be contributing to the situation based on concerns about their finances, the disruption of their own routines, the stress of homeschooling, and all the uncertainty of this situation.
“It’s normal to have tension when everyone is together all day long,” said Dr. Lindsay. “One thing I recommend is a ‘floor vacation’ – if you have a basement, a main floor and a second floor, spread out and take a break from one another for as long as needed.”
Another tried-and-true way to break up the tension is to plan something fun like a family movie night. Even teens can be pulled into playing a classic board game like Scrabble, Monopoly or Clue, and they seem to especially drawn to some of the newer strategy games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride.
If “stay-at-home” guidelines remain in place, more so than ever, the backyard is the ideal place to extend family living space. Cook-outs, campfires, tending to a family garden and playing lawn games like volleyball, croquet, and corn hole are all inexpensive ways to enjoy summer days and nights without leaving home.
Anxious about what’s ahead
Some teens may dwell on the many uncertainties ahead. How safe will it be to live in a college dormitory? Will colleges even offer anything but online classes in the fall? How will I find a job in this economy? Will it ever be safe to visit and hug my grandparents?
At least until a vaccine for the coronavirus is widely available, life won’t look like it did as recently as February. And the long-term effects on society could be significant.
If teens get overly anxious about the future, it’s a good time to remind them that everyone is in this together and sometimes the best thing you can do is take a few deep breaths and focus on what’s in your control.
“We know children, in general, are resilient,” said Dr. Lindsay. “They will certainly remember this time but hopefully it won’t all be negative. We are all living through a huge historical event. Think about the college essays and journal entries that teens can and probably should be writing.”
Dr. Putt agreed, adding that parents – and how they deal with stress and uncertainty – can be great role models for their children.
“Personally, I love seeing all the creative ways people are dealing with this – the humorous videos, the expressions of love and support for the care providers, the online reunions of family and friends, the way we celebrate birthdays with a parade of cars,” he said. “We may not get back those milestone events that are being missed, but, hopefully, in 10 years or so when we think back on shelter-at-home time, there will be some good memories. Hopefully, our memories will balance the bad and scary stuff with the ways this brought out the best in people too.”
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