For Parents: Helping Your Teen Cope During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Parents have enough to do right now—too much—but supporting your teens through this difficult time is one of the more important items on your list.

Yes, teenagers are less likely than older adults to face serious illness if they contract coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), but the pandemic is still wreaking havoc on their lives.

Some are coping with sick parents or grandparents and economic uncertainty. All are adjusting to a new way of life without their constants of school, friends and structure.

“They’re experiencing a lot of losses right now,” says UNC Health pediatrician Martha Perry, MD. “Proms and end of the year celebrations are canceled. They’re not playing their sports and they’re not performing their plays, dances or concerts. These are things they’ve dedicated time and effort to that are really important to them.”

Like adults, teenagers are worried about the future. If their parents lose their jobs, what does that mean for college or being able to stay in their home?

Making matters worse, teenagers tend to seek comfort from each other, and they can’t do that as easily right now. Virtual connection over video chat or social media is good, but even this generation needs in-person socializing, Dr. Perry says.

“Teenagers are biologically and emotionally driven to gravitate away from their families and toward their peers for support and reassurance,” she says. “Not being able to do that right now is very stressful and anxiety-inducing.”

Dr. Perry provides some tips for providing safety and stability to your teen during this crisis.

1. Admit there’s no playbook.

This is not a time to bluff, Dr. Perry says. “Be honest with your kids. Say, ‘We haven’t done this before. We’re learning along the way.’”

This acknowledgement might help teens who feel frustrated know that they aren’t alone. From there, you can problem-solve together: “I don’t know how the ACT or SAT is going to work now, but I will help you figure it out.”

2. Validate their losses.

Yes, tens of thousands of people have died of COVID-19 worldwide and many more are suffering and facing life-altering circumstances. That doesn’t mean your teen missing baseball season isn’t painful.

“This is not a time to try to talk them out of it or convince them to see the bright side,” Dr. Perry says. “This is a time to validate and say, ‘I am so sorry; this is so hard.’”

Again, it’s important to let your teen know that you’re in this together and you’ll work through this as a team.

3. Partner with them on what the new normal looks like.

Your teen’s average day has been turned on its head. Now, schoolwork is done from home, and parents may have to fill in as educators. The best way to try to minimize conflict is to engage your teen as a partner in planning the schedule, Dr. Perry says.

Maybe your teen normally wakes up at 6 a.m. for school. Work with him to find a reasonable time to wake up during this period, acknowledging that it won’t be so early but waking up before noon is important, too. Discuss what chores he thinks he can complete each week to help the household keep running.

Parents have to consider whether teens are getting adequate sleep, eating well and moving each day. “A lot of these things we take for granted when they’re at school because they’re on a schedule,” she says. “But they may not know how to do it for themselves.”

4. Give them a break.

It’s unrealistic for us to expect better versions of ourselves or our teens to show up during a pandemic, when everyone is very stressed. Just as adults find it hard to eat right, limit screen time and control their emotions, teens will too.

And while structure is important, this is not the time to be overly controlling about keeping teens on a perfect schedule, Dr. Perry says.

Try not to criticize your teenagers for coping mechanisms, such as eating junk food or zoning out in front of the TV. Instead, set an example as best you can of healthy coping and give them opportunities to do healthy things with you, such as going for a hike or following a short meditation on YouTube.

5. Reach out for help

The stressors right now are intense. Parents may be dealing with work and home management at a level that makes providing mental health support to their teens even more difficult, Dr. Perry says.

You don’t have to do it all alone. Many mental health providers are offering video visits, which can be a great way for a teen to connect with someone for additional emotional support.

A Silver Lining for Teens

While the human toll of COVID-19 is terrible, this moment is teaching us some lessons that we can use to improve our lives moving forward, Dr. Perry says. Teenagers coming of age now might grow up with a unique appreciation for the value of human connection and perhaps less of an emphasis on material things.

“This will make them stronger and maybe more likely to pursue a simpler life,” she says. “Our teens are going to take this into adulthood and think about what really matters.”

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.