How To Help Your Teenager Cope With The Changed World

COVID-19 is spreading havoc globally. The world has changed as social distancing, online classes and work from home are the new norm. Here’s how to help your teenager cope with the changed world.

By Susan Philip

How To Help Your Teenager Cope With The Changed World

“I’m bored!”
“Ma, I want to meet Abhishek in the park. Can I go? Why not? We’re just going to kick a football around. I’m not going to fall sick or anything!”
“I need the laptop for online classes. Daddy, tell Aditi she can’t use it to play silly games.”
“Why do you keep coming into my room? I’m trying to sleep!”
“It’s SO Unfair! When will I get to wear my new stilettoes?”

Doesn’t at least some of this sound familiar? A few of these comments indicate common teen behaviours and attitudes, which pre-date COVID-19; but several are specific to the pandemic and have acquired a special significance. In the present scenario, we, as adults, are stressed by multiple concerns. This may sometimes blind us to the fact that our teenagers are going through major physical, mental and emotional changes, and therefore need additional help in coping with the current situation. Here are some concerns your teen may have in the wake of COVID-19 along with tips from peers and experts on how you can help him.

Will I get COVID-19

I’m kind of freaked out about this—the COVID situation seems to be getting worse every day!”

Some teenagers may be more optimistic and not too worried about catching the virus. However, others may be anxious about getting the infection.

How to support your teen

Teenagers are adept at gathering information. Encourage your teen to keep abreast of world developments. Help her research the disease, its causes, symptoms, and prevention.

However, the danger may be that the sources they use to gather information may not be reliable. So do some research yourself and encourage your teen to refer to sources like UNICEF and WHO, where the information is more authentic. Encourage your teen to double check everything he reads or hears from different sources using reliable sites, before passing on any information. This will have the added benefit of nurturing his critical thinking skills and curbing fake news.

While it is important to understand the seriousness of the situation, constant updates about rising numbers can be very disturbing, particularly to the sensitive mind of a teenager. So, it’s a good idea to avoid continuously run TV channels focussed on the crisis. Discuss the positives of the situation more than the negatives – focus on recoveries, rather than the number of ‘cases’, for instance. Also, try to put things in perspective. Point out that a country with a higher population will understandably have higher numbers of infections and deaths. Use this as an opportunity to get your teen to think and reason.

Who cares for social distancing?

I miss my friends”, says 14-year-old Darshini. “During the summer holidays I used to play with my friends and visit various places, but now I am not able to leave my house.”

Darshini’s concerns are sure to resonate with teens everywhere. Social interaction is crucial at this stage of their lives, when identities are being created. To be denied the chance to hang out with peers can have a huge impact on a teen’s mental health.

In the presence of such a serious and contagious illness, both parents and teens understand that physical health has to be given top priority. Yet, teens may not be too excited about social distancing and your challenge may be to get your teen to accept the prescribed precautionary measures as a necessity.

Some teens may make it seem like they are the ones being specifically targeted – “But everyone /no one does it!”. However, in this situation, it is important to make your teen understand that the situation is universal. “The fact that this is a global phenomenon makes it just a bit easier for teens to accept restrictions and social distancing”, says Arundhati Swamy, Family and School Counsellor, parenting expert at ParentCircle. “But they will still need parental support.”

How to support your teen

Teens may feel that ‘nothing will happen’ to them. Parents can, without adding to their fears and anxiety, introduce the idea of being responsible for their own safety and the safety of others. Teens feel proud to be considered ‘old enough’ in a positive way. So, play up that angle. Let your teen know that you trust him to stay safe and also not to endanger the lives of elderly or very young people in the family.

Allow teens time for connecting with friends online, adds Arundhati. The present unprecedented situation may call for relaxing established rules on gadget time. Draw up new rules and involve your teen in the process. “Children are more cooperative when they are made part of the process”, she points out. “The rules must apply to the entire family for them to be effective. Also, be flexible when the situation demands”, she recommends.

On the other hand, provided there is no immediate danger of infection, Arundhati suggests allowing your teen to meet with a friend or two for a short period in a safe open space such as the terrace, after they promise to maintain physical distancing and wear masks. This will help curb any feeling of loneliness.

These are anxious times

Losing out on my school farewell sucks. And there’s no way to cope with it because I’m just never going to get a proper farewell- no writing on shirts on the last day, no ceremony, no dressing up for the party after. Something that all of us had been planning for the last 2 years has been suddenly snatched from us.”

Teens may have many concerns about missed opportunities and their future. But your teen may not openly communicate his feelings with you.

How to support your teen

Hear your child out, however unfounded or irrational her fears may seem”, says Annie Abraham, a senior professional at an IT firm. “It’s important to validate your teenagers’ fears and concerns. If they feel that you are listening to them with an open mind, they will be more willing to share their thoughts with you,” agrees Arundhati.

Sometimes your teen’s concerns may seem trivial – such as being upset over her cancelled valedictory function. But, don’t just brush aside these concerns – remember, these are milestone events in your teen’s life, giving closure to one phase of her life, and entry into another. Instead, empathise and let your teen know you understand how disappointing it must be for her and that you too are disappointed. What else could you do to celebrate the occasion? How about a virtual online celebration? Who would she like to invite? And so on.

An older teen may be silently worrying about the state of the family’s finances in these uncertain times, and how it could affect his future. You could start a family discussion about this and explain the situation as optimistically as possible without raising false expectations. Talk about what can you do as a family to tide over the situation.

Challenges of online classes

It’s a big chaos in my house in the mornings, when both my sister and I need laptops for our online classes and mum and dad need them to get on their work meetings.”

Several schools have shifted to online classes. Teachers, many of whom may not be technologically savvy, are trying to come to grips with the new medium of teaching. On the other hand, teenagers may be technologically well-equipped, but they may be reluctant to sit in front of the screen for long periods of time and pay attention to a teacher who isn’t physically present. Additionally, in homes where there is more than one school-going child, but not enough gadgets to go around, attending these online sessions could become a problem.

How to support your teen

Respectful and open communication enables a child to build trust in the parent”, points out Arundhati. “It’s very important for teens to know they will be listened to, understood, believed, and supported through difficult experiences.” With specific reference to the online classes, she suggests having open family conversations, “Listen to your teen’s opinions and thoughts. Appreciate her knowledge and analyses of the situation.”

Have conversations with your teen on what is going well with her classes, what was interesting in class or special about a particular class that day, did she have any questions for the teacher and so on. If your teen has concerns about her classes, listen without passing judgments. Talk about how your teen would like to handle the situation. Work with peers? Discuss with her teacher? How would she like you to support her? Let her lead the way in finding a solution. Be there to support.

If you feel your teen is being inattentive, explain to him privately that not having a teacher looking over his shoulder is actually a ‘grown-up privilege’, and he should take advantage of it to fast-track his own development.

In homes where gadgets have to be shared, see how you can draw up a plan for gadget use so every child is given an opportunity to use the gadgets. For example, a smartphone can be used for some time by each child instead of a laptop. When homework has to be done online, each child can be allotted a fair amount of Internet time.

College and beyond

It’s so muddled—no one knows when the college entrance exams are going to happen and when college admissions will start. It makes me feel very confused and uncertain.”

Older teens who have just finished 12th standard, may be concerned about entrance exam schedules and college admissions. It is only natural for your teen to feel so uncertain about her future and be upset that all her well-laid out plans can no longer happen.

How to support your teen

Acknowledge your teen’s concerns- yes, these are uncertain times and it is frustrating. But let your teen know that you are there to support him, no matter what. Keep your teen and yourself updated about entrance exam schedules and admission requirements. Check out various college options. Have your teen research virtual interview techniques and help him practice. This will boost your teen’s confidence and he will be prepared to take his exams and do interviews when the time comes.

Meanwhile, have your teen explore other interests and hobbies – things he may have always wanted to do or explore. This is a great time for that. And who knows, he may discover a new passion and may decide to change his plans for what he wants to study in college.

Schedule it

How and when my day gets over, I have no idea. When I start out in the morning, I want to get so many things done, but by evening I have done little much else except staring at my phone.”

It’s one of the contradictions of life - teenagers may resent routine, yet they perform best when they work on a schedule. The predictable pattern – the beep-beep of the morning alarm, hurrying for special tuition, rushing to catch the school bus, lunch breaks, cricket coaching, keyboard lessons and salsa classes, IPL and FIFA schedules – is what keeps them going. And now, suddenly, they find there is no structure to their lives.

How to support your teen

Draw up a schedule”, is Annie’s advice. “Take your child’s inputs and frame a timetable which includes study time, exercise, social media time and family mealtime. Get up at a set time every day. Encourage your teen to take a morning shower and change out of nightwear into regular day wear. Set an example yourself. Don’t lounge in your pyjamas all day. Dress as if you’re going to work, even if you only have to move to the table where you have set up your ‘workstation’. In our family, we realized that this is a great way to feel good even if we’re sitting at home.”

Energy crisis

Eighteen-year-old Prashant’s life revolves around sports. He’s on his college cricket team. Now, he is angry and frustrated that he’s not able to practice his game, and, to make matters worse, there are no matches that he can watch on TV. He tries to make up for this by pitching a tennis ball endlessly against his bedroom wall, driving his mother crazy.

This situation is all too common. Teenagers can alternate between being lethargic and having a surplus of energy, which they need to expend.

How to support your teen

Channelise the energy. Can your teen continue with his coaching classes online? Many established coaching centres are offering virtual fitness programmes, not only as a way of keeping in touch with the sport, but also as a way to help students keep in touch with peers and teammates.

What next?

What should I do now?” asks the 15-year-old Mili regularly. That question, repeated ever so often, makes her mom want to scream.

Teenagers’ minds are racing with ideas, filled with all kinds of thoughts, usually having no connection with each other. It’s important to keep these minds productively and creatively engaged.

How to support your teen

Get your child to think”, says Annie. “Ask her what she would like to do. Help her discover her interests. Sometimes it’s just as important for her to find out what she’s not interested in.”

There is a huge variety of online courses available. Most of them are free. They range from learning a new language to honing talents like acting and public speaking. Help your teen to sign up for courses that interest her and may be useful for her in the long run. And encourage her to pursue these courses to the end.

Many libraries offer access to e-books. Explore this as a way of keeping your teen engaged.

Make a list of chores you need to do as family. Ask your teen to pick the ones he would like to take responsibility for - simple ones such as tidying the living room before going to bed, or more time-consuming ones such as doing family laundry? With domestic help not available in most homes, this is a great opportunity for your teen to understand the importance of sharing responsibility for housework without any gender bias. This way, your teen is learning valuable life skills.

Knock knock

Sixteen-year-old Minal values his privacy, the time he spends in his room. But when his parents started working from home, he felt they were intruding on his space by barging in his room unannounced. If he would lock his room, his parents would scold him, and he would push back. This created a lot of friction and unpleasantness in the house.

Privacy and me-time are super important for a teen’s emotional health. In a lockdown situation, privacy is at a premium.

How to support your teen

Understand why personal space is important for your teen,” says Arundhati. “Resist the temptation to pry, spy, peak, and listen to their conversations with friends. Avoid micro-managing your teen. When in doubt, ask yourself, ‘Is this something I would do if my teen were at school? How would I have handled it then?’ This will help you know if you are crossing the line. Ask your teen’s permission before stepping into his room. And offer help only when asked.”

How To Help Your Teenager Cope With The Changed World

The silver lining

As cliched as it may sound, every cloud has a silver lining. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. This time of togetherness as a family is a great opportunity to spend time with each other and strengthen bonds. Establish a family routine of playing a boardgame or simply watch a movie together on TV, taking turns to choose the film.

So, as a parent be extra sensitive to your teen’s worries and concerns, mood swings and changes in habits. Arundhati stresses that as a parent of a teen, it’s important for you to be aware of your own fears and anxieties and find ways to deal with them, so that these fears are not passed on to your teen. “Your calm and composed approach will convey much-needed reassurance,” she says.

Your support and unconditional love are all your teen needs to bounce back from this time of uncertainty and move ahead with hope and confidence.

In a nutshell

1. Teens are likely to feel exceptionally lonely, frustrated, and worried by the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic

2. Parents need to be:
a. extra sensitive to their worries and concerns
b. extra vigilant about mood swings and changes in habits
c. extra supportive in addressing challenges peculiar to the situation, like

  • online classes
  • uncertain academic future
  • heightened feeling of loneliness
  • missing the chance to celebrate milestone events
  • having no outlet for surplus energy

What you can do right away

  • With inputs from your teen, draw up a comprehensive daily schedule, right from waking-up time to bedtime.
  • However busy you are, make time to listen respectfully to your child’s fears, and arm yourself with authentic information to answer your teen’s queries as best as you can.
  • Respect your teen’s privacy and avoid micro-managing or nagging your teen. Instead, have open conversations about your expectations and have her come up with solutions.
  • Encourage your teen to learn a new life-skill or cultivate a new hobby.

About the author:
Written by Susan Philip on 29 June  2020.
Philip, mother to a promising lawyer and an upcoming engineer, believes in empowering her children to be the best that they can be. In a career spanning more than two decades of both online and print-based writing and editing, she has worked for the PTI, UNDP and WAN-IFRA. She also functions as Editorial Coordinator for book projects.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 29 June 2020.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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