September means that our teenagers are back to school, but this year, school for them is anything but normal. Some of them may be learning in actual classrooms wearing masks, some of them may be doing a hybrid-type schedule, and many of them are experiencing all their classes remotely from home.
But one thing is likely the same for all of them. They are dealing with even more stress than they already were before this pandemic began in the spring. Piled on top of the usual teen worries, like grades, navigating relationships, bullying, social media drama, and body image issues, are now the added fears about COVID-19 and the health of their family members, along with increased social isolation as the months of distancing drag on.
According to Dr. Lisa Damour, PhD., an expert on teen stress and anxiety, this pandemic has disrupted two of the critical processes that are key to a healthy, adolescent progression towards adulthood – the strengthening of ties to peers and the loosening of ties with parents. Forced family togetherness for months on end has been thrust upon teenagers, and although there have been some positives to this situation, it has not been conducive to their normal development.
How can we as parents promote this healthy emotional growth, while still helping them stay physically well?
Teens who haven’t been able to go back to classrooms and normal activities like sports and club meetings have been forced to become creative with their socializing. FaceTime, SnapChat, Zoom and multi-player gaming are just some of the ways teens are still “hanging out” with their friends. But none of those interactions are as impactful or meaningful as true face-to-face connection.
Parents can suggest and help facilitate small gatherings. Offer to host a group of your teens’ friends in your backyard or at a local park. Outdoor locations are definitely the best places. Encourage kids to wear masks if they’ll be close to one another and bring some extras for those that may show up without one. Providing food and a planned activity is the best way to keep them engaged.
The thought of reverting back to the “play date” days may cause some kids to roll their eyes, but they are starving for contact with friends, so a little guidance from afar will likely get a pass. Encourage activities like Frisbee, bike rides, playing with dogs, yoga, and crafting.
With a little planning, it is also easy for you to coordinate your teen spending time with other adults who are not close family members. Teenagers, who are normally around their teachers, coaches, and advisors, benefit from those mentors. With these opportunities currently diminished, we need to help them spend time around caring adults – which is good for both their mental health and for ours.
Talk with your friends and neighbors about establishing a “teen swap,” where kids go learn a skill or do some kind of activity with a fellow parent. Maybe you teach your neighbor’s teenager how to bake and decorate a cake, and they help yours build and paint a birdhouse.
In addition, be on the lookout for safe ways that your teen may be able to have a job or volunteer in some capacity so that they experience having a boss or a coordinator that they can learn from and interact with. Food banks and pet shelters are good places to look into, or simply connecting your teen with an elderly neighbor who might need assistance with their home or yard.
With so much emphasis right now on physical health, it’s easy for parents to lose sight of some of the emotional development milestones that teens are missing out on. Let us try to decrease a bit of their stress and help them forge some healthy new connections.