29 April 2020

Being a teenager is difficult at the best of times. They’re busy growing, exploring, pushing boundaries, working out who they are, who they like and where they fit into the world. But overnight, for reasons out of their control, teens everywhere have had their world largely reduced to the four walls of their bedroom and homes, and the only interaction with the wider world (and more importantly the people in it) is through a screen.

With the need for home isolation and social distancing being almost at opposite ends of everything a teenager wants to do… parenting through adolescence just got a lot harder!

Here are some tips to help you get through the coming weeks and months:

1. Ask your teen what they know and let them ask questions

Teens have likely heard a lot about COVID-19, its potential danger and what we all need to do to stop the spread. There is a lot of misinformation out there, so don’t assume that the information they have is correct. Although they are old enough to understand how it spreads, preventative measures, and risks, it is important to help them access correct information and to check in with them about any big worries. Some teens might be worrying about their own future employment options, future study options or what this all means for the family.

Have open conversations, beginning with open-ended questions about what they know, what they are worried about, and how they are coping with it all. Allow them to ask questions. It is OK if you don’t know the answers, be honest. Use it as an opportunity to find a trusted site together and look for the answer (if it exists).

We don’t yet know how long this will continue, so one conversation won’t be enough. Let them know they can come to you at any time with questions or worries. It’s also a good idea to have regular check-ins, as they may not approach you.

2. Make space for emotions (there will likely be many)

Disappointment, sadness and frustration
Teenagers everywhere are facing numerous losses. Some are experiencing grief for the first time and may not know how to process and cope with these emotions, so as parents it is extremely important to make space for their emotions.

Unfortunately, time has not stopped. Once-in-a-lifetime events and rites of passage such as graduations, school trips and parties have been cancelled. Some teenagers have significant birthdays during this time and it’s likely that their 18th birthday plans of celebrating ‘becoming an adult’ did not include staying in for the night.

Teenagers are also missing their school friends, teams, social events, classroom flirtations and lunchtime chats. These simple but important interactions used to fill their school days and make life more meaningful.

Though parents and carers cannot replace what has been lost, we should not underestimate the power of listening and being present with your teenager.

Ask them how you can support them through this time. Try not to solve their problems when they are upset. Just listen, show compassion, validate their experiences and emotions, and be there for them.

Relief and happiness
The same teenagers who feel deeply sad about missing school and their friends in one moment, may express delight and relief in another.

They may experience relief at getting out of some promises they never wanted to keep, exams they didn’t feel prepared for or being spared daily interaction with classmates, teachers or subjects they disliked. Alternatively, in between the feelings of frustration and boredom, there is joy to be had in being able to binge Netflix, beat a level on a game or get more access to screens.

Do not judge your teen for their range of emotions. All these feeling can co-exist within them at any given time. It is a good thing that they are sharing their emotions with you.

Remind teenagers that embracing the upsides of COVID-19 does not minimise what they have lost or their worries about the impact of the current situation.

3. Adjust rules to allow for a ‘new normal’… but don’t throw them out

We’re all finding new ways to connect socially with peers, be entertained and find a distraction from the current reality. To do this, many of us turned to what has remained relatively the same amongst the chaos… the internet.

Social media and video call apps are a great way for your teens to spend time with friends while practising social distancing. Encourage them to get creative, join social media challenges, follow uplifting hashtags, connect with communities and talk with their friends.

Be prepared to loosen previous ‘screen time’ rules to adjust to this new normal. But remember those rules were there for a reason and are still needed to maintain a healthy balance. Sleep, physical activity, education and face-to-face interactions (even if only with family) should not be sacrificed for life online. Make sure the normal routine of everyday life continues as much as possible – sleeping at regular times, eating, drinking water, getting some sunlight, bathing, physical activity, changing out of pyjamas and having some fun.

Try asking your teenager what they think are reasonable adjustments for screen time and their daily routine. Calmly and factually explain concerns if their suggestions are not realistic. Be clear about non-negotiables (e.g. tech curfews at night, showering once a day) while finding a middle ground when you can.

As always, it is important to look out for signs of bullying (on social media or gaming), over exposure to news coverage/distressing topics, accessing unsafe environments or sharing inappropriate content online .

4. Allow privacy and time alone… while allowing opportunities for connection

Being around each other all the time without the normal distraction of a family’s regular routine is hard on everyone. For teenagers, wanting separation from parents and the family is developmentally normal. Try not to take it personally if they want to spend time in their room or another private space in the home.

It can be helpful however, to make it clear to them that you welcome their company. With all that is going on your teenager might also find comfort in physically being around you, even if they only faintly acknowledge your presence… like a ‘pot plant parent’ – seen, enjoyed and not interacted with.

If you are working from home, when you can, try sitting in a shared space to complete a task that doesn’t need much attention. This can allow the opportunity for your teen to be close to you, they can gain a sense of support just by you being physically in a room. You never know it might also spark a conversation about how they are coping.

5. Look out for signs that things are ‘not OK’

Right now, everyone is experiencing a lot of emotions in response to a significant abnormal event. Sometimes emotions like worry and sadness can persist for a long time, are very intense and interfere with everyday life. If this happens, it is a sign that some additional help might be beneficial.

Continue to check in with your teenager and see how they are coping during this time. Take notice of what they say and don’t say and what coping strategies they are using and suggest helpful ones. These could include:

  • meditation/mindfulness
  • listening to music
  • journaling or video blogging (vlogging)
  • exercising
  • talking with a trusted adult
  • talking with friends
  • contacting a helpline or webchat
  • seeing a therapist or counsellor (in person or via video/phone).

Look out for signs that your teenager might be using coping strategies that could cause harm to themselves or others. If you notice that they are engaging in risky or violent behaviour or increased substance use which is out of character for them before COVID-19, you think they might be harming themselves or thinking about suicide, it is important to take action and get them some professional supports. These are all indicators that their mental health is ‘not OK’ and they would benefit from being seen for a mental health assessment. There are many options for support: your GP, Headspace Centre, private provider or Child and Youth Mental Health Services.

You can also call 1300 MH CALL (1300 642255) to access a confidential mental health telephone triage service that provides the first point of contact to public mental health services in Queensland.

If you, or someone you care about, is in crisis and you think immediate action is needed, phone 000, or go to your local hospital emergency department. Do not leave the person alone, unless you are concerned for your own safety.

For non-urgent support, see your doctor or contact your local Child and Youth Mental Health Service.

Useful websites

Lifeline  www.lifeline.org.au
t: 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au
t: 1300 659 467

beyondblue www.beyondblue.org.au
t: 1300 22 4636

Kids Help Line  www.kidshelpline.com.au
t: 1800 55 1800