The global pandemic has impacted everyone, on multiple levels. And there are still so many uncertainties. As we approach the back to school season, teens are facing more unknowns: Will they be at home again this fall, taking online classes? Or will they return to school, either full time or part time? What will it be like at school with social distancing and other safety guidelines? How will it feel to be back with peers in real life after so many months apart?
Dealing with change and uncertainty in a situation that is already creating distress and anxiety can be extremely challenging for teens. As parents, offering teens support during this time can also seem daunting. It’s hard to provide comfort when you’re not sure how things will unfold, and when you’re likely feeling anxious yourself. However, there are concrete ways that parents can help their teens navigate the unknown.
One of the most difficult things to encourage in others or ourselves at this time is a sense of safety and security. No one has all the answers as we cope with change in our lives, and that’s especially true right now. However, parents do not need to have all of the answers to give their teenagers a sense of security. In fact, when a parent admits that they don’t know everything, it can actually help a teen feel safer, because they know that their parent is being honest with them.
Furthermore, teens feel safer and are more protected from collective trauma when parents provide access to information, encourage open discussions about concerns, and maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect. They feel more secure when safety measures, such as wearing masks, frequent hand washing, and observing social-distancing guidelines, are acknowledged and demonstrated by their parents. Parents and caregivers create a sense of security in their kids by staying calm, remaining educated about safety guidelines, and setting an example with their own behavior.
While there is no way to control a situation like a pandemic, we can take control of our own behavior. That includes establishing a regular schedule that the family sticks to as much as possible. Setting and maintaining a routine can help give teens a sense of control over their environment while they are dealing with change. Research shows routines can help reduce symptoms of mental health disorders. Even though the world is filled with unknowns, they know what time dinner will be, what time they’ll go to bed, and what is expected of them. These knowns are comforting and help them feel that their personal world is stable, even if there are still so many big questions and new situations to navigate.
Having a set schedule at home is particularly important right now, because teenagers’ school schedules, which usually provide structure, may be very different this fall. Students may go back to school only during certain hours or days of the week. Whatever their school situation is, having a home routine in place will help them in dealing with change.
This school year will be more different than it has ever been before. Social distancing, wearing masks, or starting school partially or fully online all create a new set of challenges. During the back to school season, teens will potentially see old friends in real life for the first time in months. Or perhaps they will have to make new friends, which might be more difficult while wearing masks and following other distancing guidelines. Futhermore, seeing everyone with masks on may be strange and emotional for teens, in addition to their reactions to all the other changes.
Here’s where parents and caregivers can help normalize the situation, so teens feel more confident and less threatened by facing unknowns. Taking something that is different, like wearing masks, and making it into something lighter and less frightening helps children reframe their reaction. For example, parents might help teens shop for or sew new masks with their favorite colors, designs, logos, etc.
Parents have a tendency to offer lots of well-intentioned advice to their kids. It’s natural to want to impart wisdom and guidance. Yet some of the best parenting happens when adults stop talking and simply listen, rather than helicopter parenting. For teenagers, simply having their concerns and anxieties heard, acknowledged, and validated feels enormously reassuring.
In addition, listening well gives parents clues to how they can better support their teens. What are they are afraid of? What are they dreading or looking forward to? What might help them feel better as they head back to school? Listening allows parents to tune into the ways they can help their children deal with change.
Ultimately, the most powerful way to help teens in uncertain times is to provide the anchor of love, as demonstrated through both words and actions. That includes showing verbal and physical affection, making eye contact, speaking respectfully, maintaining emotional equilibrium in stressful situations, and making time to ask open-ended questions and listen well. Therefore, teens know that no matter what happens, they won’t be alone in facing change and uncertainty.
Moreover, this kind of authentic connection supports parents as well as teens. The positive emotions created through loving interactions help reduce the likehood of parental burnout, which is higher during stressful times like this. Together, parents and children can make the back to school season an easier and more hopeful time while dealing with change in everyday life.
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