Teens are feeling lonely and anxious in isolation. Here’s how parents can help
In March, not long before the Safer at Home order was extended to May 15, my 18-year-old son took part in a drive-by birthday caravan in the San Fernando Valley where he saw his friends for the first time since his school closed abruptly because of COVID-19.
If you’ve never heard of this touching act, it can be described as a social-distancing birthday party on wheels. As neighbors looked on and cheered, in the same vein as the nightly balcony celebrations for healthcare workers, my son Bob and his classmates offered birthday congratulations and honks as they drove by the beaming birthday celebrator.
I had hoped seeing his friends, even from afar, would be an uplifting experience, but he came home feeling lonelier than ever. “When am I going to be able to see my friends again?” he asked me.
As tens of millions of us continue to shelter in place, the most tractable of teens are feeling frustrated and anxious. They miss their former lives. They are uninterested in online classes and don’t want to follow quarantine guidelines anymore. And who can blame them?
Living in seclusion can produce quarantine fatigue, according to South Pasadena-based psychotherapist Noelle Wittliff, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with children, families and adolescents. “Many of the teens at my practice are hitting a wall,” Wittliff said. “They are over it. They want to go outside and connect with their friends. The online connection is just not cutting it.”
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Normally adolescence, a developmental period marked by impulsivity and feelings of invincibility, is a time in which teenagers separate from their parents and bond with their peers. Now that families are confined at home, parents are in a peculiar position in which they have to balance the seriousness of the novel coronavirus with their teen’s desire for social interaction.
“Many of our teens are experiencing tremendous loss, and grief is an appropriate response to loss,” Wittliff said. “Depending on the age and school year of the teen, these losses can include proms, graduation ceremonies, end-of-year sports events, dances, parties, school activities, yearbook signings and simple proximity to beloved friends, teachers or significant others. The school shutdowns happened so abruptly that many of the teens that I work with did not have the opportunity to gather belongings from their lockers or classrooms, let alone say meaningful goodbyes to teachers and classmates.
“As parents, it’s important to hold space for all of these feelings and to recognize that teens don’t always communicate sadness in expected ways,” she said. “Sadness is often masked by frustration, irritability, anger or disconnection. These are protective reactions that mask vulnerability. The goal isn’t to take these defense strategies away but rather to be curious about what other feelings might be hiding underneath.”
For teens struggling with maintaining distance from their friends, Wittliff encourages parents to validate those feelings with empathy while reminding them this quarantine is temporary. Also, as a parent or guardian, manage your teenager’s expectations and don’t make promises that won’t come true.
Wittliff offers this advice: “Tell them, ‘I hear you and I know how hard this is. I know how much you miss your boyfriend or girlfriend and your friends but this is what is going on. The entire world is going through this. We are all taking precautions to stay safe.’”
Teens who minimize the coronavirus might be doing so to hide uncomfortable feelings, said Ann Murphy, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Health Professions in New Jersey.
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“The risk associated with COVID-19 and the impact it has had on our daily lives is indeed very scary,” Murphy said. “Recognize the very real losses that young people are feeling right now, ranging from time with their friends to missing out on proms, graduations and other important events. Talk about strategies for acknowledging these milestones after things return to more normal circumstances. If parents generally restrict screen time, it may be necessary to relax those rules so teens can utilize their devices to connect with friends.”
In some situations, teenagers might be worried about the future and what that will look like. When classes resume in the fall, will they be online? Will summer jobs be available if the economy doesn’t reopen? And what about college?
Their worry is understandable. Wittliff recommends using mindfulness techniques — focusing on the present moment and not the past or future — to reduce anxiety and depression. “There are so many things that are out of our control,” Wittliff said. “When our mind focuses on those things, it is helpful to bring it back to how we can control our lives, how we stay safe, how we can stay connected in that way.”
Establishing daily habits and rituals can also help teens cope with their feelings of powerlessness. Wittliff suggests ordering pizza on a specific day or watching “The Office” alum John Krasinski’s heartwarming YouTube show, “Some Good News,” together as a family. Exercise or take a walk; movement and activity can alleviate stress.
Pamela J. Wenger, a senior training and consultation specialist for the Northeast and Caribbean Mental Health Technology Transfer Center of Rutgers University, challenges parents and teens to get creative while sheltering in place.
“Having a celebration at home to mark a special day is one way to acknowledge that the event is important,” said Wenger, a licensed professional counselor. “Some teens are organizing digital proms on TikTok and having everyone in the family and all their friends dress up and decorate the house. Teens are using Zoom and Google Meet to recreate some of these events. Parents could ask, ‘How do you think we can recognize this important event now in our current circumstances?’ Or have teens come up with ways they can celebrate these events when the isolation is over.
“Some teens are organizing a dinner dance at a local restaurant for winter break after they finish their first semester of college,” she said. “Parents can ask their teen, ‘What can you do when this is all over to celebrate with your friends even if it isn’t quite what was originally planned?’”
Structure and predictability will help with the passing of time and give teens something to look forward to. “Every day and week that they get through sheltering in place brings them that much closer to getting back to their lives,” Wittliff said. “This is hard, but our kids are resilient. And they will get through it.”
Helping teens deal with disappointment during the COVID-19 era
It’s completely normal for teens to feel anxious during this time of great uncertainty with the pandemic. “The best approach to anxiety is to identify it and develop tools for managing it,” Wenger said.
Here, Wenger offers suggestions on things parents can do to help their teens deal with anxiety and disappointment.
Ready, set, reframe: Instead of stressing out about coronavirus and the shutdown, let’s use this time of social isolation to prioritize self-care and mental wellness.
• Provide teens with accurate information. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a great place to get up-to-date information about the coronavirus. Use this site to dispel myths and rumors.
• Minimize the amount of time teenagers are exposed to news and social media regarding COVID-19.
• Be patient and tolerant with your teen or teens and allow them to vent without necessarily giving advice or telling them what they should do or how they should feel. Encourage them to talk to you but also give them space. If they won’t talk to you, ask them if there’s another adult whom they would feel comfortable talking to and attempt to make that connection. (Note: Be sure that adult is up to date with the most accurate information regarding the virus.)
Utilize these tools when your teen’s anxiety appears to be rising.
• Breathing exercises
• Physical activity
• Journal writing
• Using apps on their phone or iPad for distraction or to help with meditation
• Going for a walk outdoors
• Practicing mindfulness. Help them stay in the present, not caught up in the future or the past, by focusing on everything they see, hear, feel and smell now.
• Establish structure or a routine with your adolescents if you can. Make sure they have a part in what that routine looks like. Also, make sure there are fun activities built into this day-to-day structure.
• Check in with your teens about their academics. Be careful not to make it appear as if you’re checking in only to see if they are doing their school assignments. Rather focus on how they are feeling about home school and what difficulties they are having. Listen with empathy and compassion to the challenges they are facing and encourage them to have compassion for themselves as well.
• Have teens connect remotely with their friends and help others during this time. For example, a group of teens might knit scarves to give to the homeless during the winter, and another group could sew masks for a hospital.
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• Validate your teen’s feelings. Allow them to express how sad they are and how much they’ll miss end-of-school events. Teens who have already spent money on prom dresses or children who were practicing for a part in the school play might be expressing sadness around these events and feel uncertainty about being able to make up these events or having these experiences at all. Try not to dismiss or downplay their feelings. Don’t tell your teens, “There will be plenty of dances” or “You will go on other trips.” These statements don’t acknowledge the significance of the loss your teen is feeling. A better response would be: “I hear how difficult this is for you and how you were really looking forward to this.”
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