Helping Teens Cope With COVID-19


Between the stresses of school and friends, hormones, and parental pressure, the teen years are not the easiest. With the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, being a teenager is harder than ever. How can we best support our teenagers? I consulted with the experts, other Capitol Hill mothers of teenagers, in addition to my own two teens, and a few therapists to gather some tips.

Don’t be afraid to give them the facts
Help your teenager access accurate, fact-based, and helpful information, but not too much of it. Avoid the 24-hour news cycle as much as possible in favor of short, targeted updates on the current situation and guidelines. Social media are a fun outlet for teens, but encourage them to look to legitimate sources of information for news about the virus. Keep them in the loop about how they can stay safer as they travel to and from school and at school. Talk about what extracurriculars and social activities might look like so they know what to expect.

Help them stay safe
Along with your research about the virus, teach your teens how to keep themselves safe. Buy plenty of masks and hand sanitizer and review proper handwashing techniques. Discuss the use of such preventative measures before each outing, especially when they will be without you. Make sure they have a reasonable understanding of what the risks are and how they might prevent them. Younger teens will need stricter guidelines and supervision, often more supervision than they are used to. Even older teens, used to being independent, might need more guidance than you would expect. This is new to all of us!

Recognize the emotions
Depression, anxiety, and other emotional issues are prevalent in teens during normal times so it stands to reason that they will increase during such a time of increased stress. Missing out on school dances and milestones such as prom and graduation may have an immediate and lasting impact on our children. Capitol Hill therapist Danielle Tiley advises parents “to be patient with your teen and with yourself. These are hard times, and your teen might resist you or talk back more than usual; rise above the back talk or defiance and allow them space to express negative emotions. Welcome the release of those big feelings.” Share your own anxieties with them, but with that share how you are handling them. If the feelings become overwhelming, turn to professional help. Fortunately, therapy is readily available online with insurance often paying just as with in-person sessions.

Practice self-care and help them do the same
Yoga, meditation, and exercise are great anxiety-reducing techniques. My own older teenager balks at my requests to get more exercise, but admits it helps. He has also found success in setting a regular sleep and work schedule. It is reasonable to slide your sleep schedule by a couple of hours, but staying up into the wee hours of the night and sleeping all morning can be depressing, not to mention unproductive. Taking walks together, walking the dog, hiking, and biking are all great ways for everyone to get exercise, and create opportunities to discuss how things are going. Joan Hay, a DCPS-based Occupational Therapist, stresses the importance of whole-body movement throughout the day, especially for students with attention difficulties. “Kids are used to carrying heavy backpacks and doing a lot of walking. Sitting at the dining room table and working is not always best. Encourage your kids to take frequent movement breaks, even if it is just a few push-ups or a quick walk around the block.”

Keep them busy
Getting on a schedule and sticking to it is also good for emotional health. Outside of school responsibilities, look for employment opportunities for your teen. These could range from actual employment in a grocery store or camp to babysitting, tutoring, or yard work. Families must weigh concerns about virus exposure with such jobs, but they can certainly provide an opportunity to fill a teen’s time while bringing some possibly needed money into the family.

Get something done
As strange as it might sound, several parents noted that this could be a great opportunity to get something accomplished. In addition to being a rewarding undertaking, volunteering in the time of Covid can allow your student to get school-required volunteer hours completed. If local guidelines permit, this can be a perfect time to get wisdom teeth removed or start on orthodontics. Many of us have been cleaning out our own closets. This can be a good time to go through your teen’s room, together, and pack up the last vestiges of childhood.

Encourage socialization
As much as possible support your teen’s opportunities for socialization. Teenagers are social creatures. They thrive on social interactions, and social distancing is particularly hard on them. By now most teens have figured out how to Zoom and FaceTime and do it regularly. Depending on your tolerance, social distancing outdoor get-togethers, ranging from one-on-one talks to drive-by birthday parties, have probably become your new norm. Encourage your teen to make such plans. If you are like me, you have been spoiled by your teens being able to walk and take public transit to social activities. It may seem like a step backward to drive your teens around again, but it is important to help your teens facilitate this new social life.

Support distance learning
Your student might not be used to needing support from you, but hybrid (both in-person and online) and distance learning (only online) can bring out challenges for any student. Your teen might need support with the increased executive functioning expectation – keeping track of which days are school days and the schedule for online meetings, for example. In addition to family members, many families are turning to outside support. Learning Specialist on the Hill Colleen Buchanan notes that parents should trust their instincts and turn to paid help if necessary. However, she also encourages them not to stress. “Focus on skill building, and base that on your own and their interests. Do not worry as much about the school curriculum, if that is causing stress, but rather on making progress in various areas of interest.”

Relax the rules
Across the board, parents have stressed that there will be increased screen time during this crisis, and that they should make peace with that. Endless hours of Netflix streaming or video games are not going to ruin your teenager! Many teens incorporate social time into these activities, watching a movie or favorite TV show “with” a peer or playing video games online together. We all have to get through this with our sanity intact!

E.V. Downey is an educational consultant based on Capitol Hill. She works with families on finding the right school for their kids ages toddler through high school. A graduate of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, E.V. has raised her own two kids, now in high school and college, on Capitol Hill. She also runs a camp at the Hill Center, works as a behavior therapist with kids with developmental disabilities, and teaches flute at Music on the Hill.