Teenagers have read about the many historical disruptions to daily life that have plagued society for centuries around the world. From World Wars to the civil rights movement to refugee crises to the tragic events of 9/11, each generation has had a similar event that is not only life-changing but resonates in their memsociories for years to come. Fortunately, for most teens, the current COVID-19 pandemic is their first actual experience of this magnitude in which their lives have been interrupted and possibly turned upside down… Thanks in part to social distancing.
While it cannot be compared to any other global event that has been experienced in recent years, it will certainly leave teens with an impression of their adolescence that they will carry with them well into their old age. Can you picture the scene? A group of older people sitting around reminiscing about their youth, recalling the ‘good old days’ of partying, sports and relationships. Oh, and then there was the pandemic which forced all of us to be quarantined inside our homes!
What will they say about it? Will they look back with fond memories of time spent with family, relaxation, and online learning? Or will they recall the events as being traumatic, disruptive, and unbearable? What about all of those milestones that they should have reached or were delayed? Senior prom? High School graduation? The basketball state championship? There will be those folks who fall into each category but hopefully more of the former than the latter.
Times are hard! For many us with teenagers, we spend our days and evenings shuttling children between school and practice, picking up from school functions, running between tournaments, recitals, and exhibitions. It was not unusual for an entire weekend to be spent on the road, for dinner to consist of pizza in the car, and conversations to be short and superficial. This was the normal every day of life for many families of teenagers.
Until one day when a deadly virus erupted onto the scene, causing schools to close indefinitely, workers to be forced to stay at home while others commit to working immeasurable, heart-wrenching hours taking care of those who are gravely ill. In other words, society and everything that we know has been completely disrupted. For many adults and teens, this type of interruption can place an insurmountable amount of stress and strain on their physical health and mental state.
While parents may be struggling with being confined, limited, and certainly facing financial difficulty, they may also be breathing a slight sigh of relief at the temporary reprieve from the chaos of “normal” life. For teenagers, however, it may be a different story. The social distancing, restrictions on their busy social lives, and loneliness may just be more than some teens can bear.
Adolescence is supposed to be a time of fun, laughter, learning, and stretching into the adults that they will become. However, teens are also very caught up in the moment and cannot always see beyond the present and look toward their future. This is especially true for teens who already may struggle with mental health issues. As they try to find their place in this world, every day is a struggle for a teen who faces a daily battle with their self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders let alone the added pressures of social distancing.
For some, it is extremely difficult to see through the boredom, isolation, and loneliness that is clouding their perspective and their view of the future. They may only see that doom and gloom are all around them believing that this interruption to their lives is going to be their new reality. They cannot fathom NOT walking across the stage in front of their friends and family to receive their high school diploma. They are deeply distraught at not experiencing prom as they dreamt during their 4 years of high school. While life may never return to exactly the way we knew it before, as adults, we know that we will come through it one way or another. For some teens though, the pandemic may seem like the end of the world, pushing their mental state over the edge even to the point of self-harm.
Even as you struggle with the reality of what is going on around us during this unprecedented time, it is important to help your teen understand the temporary nature of the circumstances. While you do not have a crystal ball to predict when “normalcy” will return, whatever that will mean, we will all return to what some may consider a “new normal”, engaging in sports, going to school, hanging out with friends.
As a parent, it may be difficult to understand how teens could be so short-sighted as to not realize that the situation is temporary. Unfortunately, many adults are struggling with these same thoughts as well. Parents need to help teens to maintain a healthy perspective on the current situation and to ensure a positive mental state.
Tips to help teens cope with social distancing
- Recognize feelings. Everyone has their own feelings about social distancing. While some teens may be handling it well, others may not. Even within the same household, one teen may have developed coping skills while another may be struggling. Neither is right or wrong. If your teen is deeply upset about the interruption to senior year, the loss of time with friends, acknowledge those emotions, and encourage your teen to look at the future and all that lies ahead. The reality is that those feelings are real and you cannot, in fact, change them. Acknowledging feelings is the first step in healing.
- Create new memories. Throughout the years, teens have expected and envisioned a certain outcome from their high school years including prom, graduation, and friends. They were looking forward to making memories that they would discuss well into adulthood even look back with fondness. Memories are not limited to only those big events that happen in our lives but are created every day with experiences and people around us. Take the time to make new memories with your teen, enjoying the time together. Make the most out of the situation to make funny videos of yourselves, to play board games, and engage with one another. While they are not a replacement for the ones that teens had been looking forward to, they certainly have a place in their hearts and minds.
- Establish a routine. We all thrive on consistency and routine. Although the craziness of everyday life may seem to be chaotic, there is a rhythm to it that teens thrive on. Routine helps to reduce the chaos and provides teens with a sense of control even when everything else appears to be out of control. You can still create rhythm while social distancing by establishing guidelines such as a regular sleep schedule, time for schoolwork, time for relaxation, and “play”. Encourage your teen to make time for social interaction with friends via video-conferencing, exercise, and time with family. While it is a different schedule than what they are used to, a “temporary” routine can help a teen’s mental health and their understanding of the “temporary” nature of the situation.
- Positive thinking. Teens who struggle with mental health issues may already be faced with negative thought patterns and self-limiting beliefs. It is important to encourage positive thinking, to reinforce their strengths and potential, and to emphasize all of the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead of them once life returns to “normal”. As their mental health is challenged, teens may struggle to see the positive and for some, they may only see that self-harm as the only way out of the situation. Encourage your teen that by staying positive and highlighting all of the good that will come out of it, they will come out on the other side of the pandemic.
- Be compassionate. Everyone copes with life in their own way. For those with mental health issues, it may be more difficult but demonstrate to your teen that you are vulnerable too. Although you want to be strong for them, show your teen how the situation impacts you and what you are doing to manage your feelings and emotions. By watching you, they will learn coping mechanisms that they can use not only during this time of social distancing but that they will carry with them through life.
Each one of us will look back on this time in our lives differently. We will each tell our tale of how we handled social distancing, what we did, how we managed. For teens who struggle with mental health issues, it is important they, in fact, get through. By proactively encouraging a healthy perspective on the situation, you very well may be saving your teen’s life.
If you suspect that your teenager is having difficulty coping with the effects of social distancing or they may be at risk of self-harm, reach out to their pediatrician or mental health professional immediately.
The trained professionals at Beachside Treatment Center can provide you with further guidance to help your teen to navigate through the stresses of the disruption to their life and manage their mental health to ensure that they can see what the future on the other side of social distancing holds.