Navigating the Pandemic with Your Teen

By Sarah Saffold, MSW, LMSW

The teenage brain is a mysterious thing.
The Teenage Brain… an outsider’s view

It would be an understatement to say that we have been trying to stabilize from the effects of the pandemic now for months. What started as feelings of panic, fear and uncertainty have changed to managing as well as we can to this ever changing landscape. Most feel as if that is all they are doing, just managing. 

This is not a place we as humans have had to deal with collectively for this length of time. It is exhausting, still scary and very difficult to have no idea when this will end and what our world will look like when it does.

While that is tough enough for an adult to manage (or just survive), trying to decipher what that means to your pre-teen or teenager is even more perplexing. What we know about teenage brain development at this stage involves them picking up more on our emotional cues, thinking more abstractly as well as logically. They also go through the latency period of development from about 6-11 years old where moods are relatively calm. 

Starting around age 12, brain research shows that the amygdala part of the brain which directly correlates with the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain) – is much more sensitive to emotions during teen development. 

In other words, while we blame our teens’ mood fluctuations on hormones, there is much more to it than that. 

Being a teenager is a lot to manage without a global pandemic. No one has any frame of reference because none of us have lived through this. So while their emotions are much more intense and sensitive than ours, their blow ups might be too. 

Have you ever had that moment where you feel like you have really been connecting with your teen and then you bought them the wrong kind of ice cream and they have a melt-down, scream the words “I hate you, you don’t care about me at all,” and storm away slamming their door? We’ve all been there.

What we can do to help our teens

Here are a few tips.

Believe them

Trust what your teenager tells you about their feelings. This is very important. Not only to make them feel validated, but because they are actually feeling the intensity they are describing. Brain research supports it. We might roll our eyes or think they’re being dramatic, but they are just learning how to intensely feel emotions and do not have the capacity to understand why.

Listen

Ask your teen if they just need to vent or if they want your advice. Even if they say they just want your advice, they likely do not. They need to learn that you are a safe, non-judgmental place to turn to in their time of need. Avoid the drive to just fix it or offer the way you would do something. They are learning to be their own person.

Try to understand

Understand that your teen’s ability to get whatever they’re feeling off their chest will lead to them having a better day. They will also be less likely to look to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as absorbing into their phone or room, using substances, or unhealthy relationships to get their feelings out. By absorbing your teens complaints, moods, feelings and frustrations, you are helping him or her to “dump” or be rid of all the negativity and for them to be their best self for the rest of her day.

Spend quality time

Make a conscious effort to spend at least 15 minutes per day, uninterrupted, with your teen. Be sure to look them in their eyes, put away all distractions and just talk. This can be at dinner, at bedtime, even in the car driving sometimes – whatever works for you. It’s amazing how many days we go through realizing we have not looked our children in the eyes, but just functioned in a “doing” mode – how lonely that must feel to them. Even better, set weekly or monthly dates for just the two of you!

Encourage socialization

So many kids are now using technology and in the seclusion of their rooms. Combined with the isolation caused by the pandemic, this extends to everyday, all day, if your teen is not attending school in-person. Depending on your comfort level with COVID, you could try enrolling your child in an online program where they are in small groups with others. You could sign your teen up for a sport or other hobby they’ve been wanting to try. Many parents are trying to form social pods and meeting up in outdoor settings by practicing social distancing. Being sure to get physical activity many times per week is also very healthy. Maybe part of your one on one time is taking up a new hobby or outdoor sport together.

Take care of yourself

Saying we’re too busy or don’t have enough time for self-care harms our relationship with our loved ones, but mostly ourselves. Here are some tips to weave self-care into your week, even if you’re short on time.

More On Self Care

Be intentional

If we want to change something, we have to make a plan and stick to it. It’s really as simple as that.

Make small goals at first so you can feel successful

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pick one thing first that feeds your soul the most. Then start feeding yourself. It could be planning to work out again 3 times/week or going to a church service every week. It could be making time to see friends, eating healthier or getting alone time for yourself. Write your goal down somewhere whether it’s a planner or a white board and check that goal off each time you complete it. There’s something truly satisfying about checking something off your list

Dream

Don’t get lost in your children’s lives so much that you forget about what you want for yourself. During the pandemic, it’s easy to feel as if everything is stunted and will never change. We know that it will, but we have to remind ourselves every day. Start small, take those small steps toward what you want out of life! If you want to change careers, make a few steps each month to do it. If you want to invest more in your adult relationships, make small goals to help those improve. With teenage children, very soon they will leave the nest and we want to be sure we have the life we wanted when that happens.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness very simply means allowing yourself to “be” instead of always “doing.” It’s becoming more aware of your thoughts and just observing them without judgment. It takes time & practice to become dedicated to living mindfully. There are many apps and tools/techniques that can help you. Take a course at the Center for Mindfulness and CBT to learn more about this! Mindfulness is an evidence-based approach to reduce stress, along with many other amazing benefits.

Take action now

I would love to have you join a class I will be starting in the next month that you would attend with your pre-teen or teen daughter to learn more about topics that pertain to how to deal with the effects of the pandemic, how to connect more with them during this stage of life, and learning mindfulness techniques you both can use to reduce stress. Make sure you are on our email list so you will be among the first to get more information on how to register as soon as it opens!

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It's more important than ever to take care of your mental health, so all of our therapists are doing Telehealth and many have immediate openings for new clients.