Emotionally supporting our children through the pandemic
“The young people we love are headed into a school year that is unprecedented, unpredictable and not what any of them would have chosen. Let’s be sure to supply them with what they’ll certainly need.”
Raising a teenager can feel like a roller coaster in the best of times. We experience almost euphoric highs, but as the saying goes, “parents are only as happy as their least happy child.” This up and down can be exacerbated during times like these when our children are affected by a pandemic, an economic recession, and social unrest. So, how do we support them as they return to the routine of school, whether in person or online?
When I feel the need for guidance, I often turn to the writings of Lisa D’Amour. D’Amour is a psychologist, counselor, and she writes a monthly column for The New York Times. Recently, she wrote a piece called “The 2020 Back-To-School List for Teens’ Emotional Well-Being.” In this post, she lists several ways that parents can support their children’s return to school under our current circumstances.
She starts by recommending that parents and children find a safe way for maintaining connections with friends. One toll of this pandemic is the sense of isolation many teens feel as they attempt to differentiate themselves from their parents by spending time with peers, but are unable to see their friends physically. Many Keystone students commented in this summer’s survey on their loneliness, isolation, and how much they missed their friends and school.
Adolescents want and need to be with their peers. Since physical distancing is not a normal way of interacting with others, we should teach and remind them how to do it. We also have to be patient and understanding when they make mistakes. Humans have been social creatures for a long time; being away from peers is unnatural, and we should acknowledge that. As D’Amour recommends, “When teenagers bristle at our rules for socializing, as they understandably will, we can explain that we are not trying to be at odds with them. Rather, we are on their side against the shared enemy of Covid-19. As such, we can also invite and take seriously teenagers’ suggestions about how they might visit with their peers while keeping themselves and others healthy.”
Teens require time not only with their peers, but also the chance to be with adults besides their parents. The parental advice that receives rolled eyes or cries of disbelief will be cited as “brilliant” when it comes from another adult; we need to find time for our children to be with extended family, older friends, coaches, or mentors. Here again, though, this poses difficulties during a pandemic. Among D’Amour’s suggestions are, “Barter mentoring with your friends: Offer to engage their teenager around a shared interest and see if they can do the same for yours. If your adolescent can safely hold a job, volunteer in the community or be active at your place of worship under the watchful eye of a trustworthy adult, help make that happen.”
As we know intuitively, routines provide us with comfort; this becomes all the more true when so much of our world feels unstable and unpredictable. Although teens may balk at this notion, they really do crave reliability and steadiness. Here again, as parents, we need to be in dialogue with them in order to establish and reinforce regular and ongoing habits. “It probably won’t work to hand any self-respecting teenager a carefully crafted agenda of what you expect them to do hour by hour. A better bet would be to stipulate what should be part of any daily schedule — such as set times for studying, physical activity, adequate sleep and pitching in around the house or community — and then let your teenager come up with a plan that you get to approve.” The chances of a young adult buying into anything improve markedly when they feel agency and ownership of the process and the decision.
Perhaps one of the most important supports we can offer our children is recognizing the unique nature of our present situation and letting them know that we support them. Being a teen already carries its own set of stressors. If adolescents know that their parents are in their corner, they can weather what comes their way more effectively than otherwise. “Having parents who are kind, patient and predictable can help teenagers buffer the chronic stress of living under Covid-19.”
However, this can pose a challenge as we grapple with our own anxiety. As the pre-flight instructions advise, put your own oxygen mask on first before attending to your child. All too often we forget that caregivers must take care of themselves if they are to be there for others. By ensuring that we’re healthy, both physically and mentally, we can be there just to listen to our children and empathize while not trying to fix or problem-solve what may not have a solution.
As we continue to provide our Cobras with the physical instruments they need to succeed in school-computers, pencils, and a well-lit and organized space to attend classes from home-let’s also make sure that we give them the emotional tools they require to flourish this school year.