As an occupational therapist and the mom of a teenager, I have been reflecting on the impact of stay at home on our families, and as of late, particularly on our teenagers. Like many of you, our family has been adjusting to daily life with a teen home during a time when days (and nights!) would typically be filled with school, sports and social events. Instead of barely seeing our teens, we are seeing them all day long as our home, school, and work lives become ever intertwined. This is a huge change for both teens and for parents and families, particularly at a time when teens are transitioning into adulthood. Through this article, I will share with you some thoughts related to supporting teens during the time of social distancing. I hope that some of these ideas will help you and your teen thrive as we stay at home more.
- Grieving loss. First, it is important to allow our teens time to vent and to grieve what they have lost. They have lost in-person “face-time” with friends, their club activities, sports activities, proms, graduation, reasons to drive a car, dating and so much more. Be open to conversation, empathize with them, and resist the need to remind them that “we all have lost something” during the time of COVID-19. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised at the mature conversations you will have with your child. I have been particularly surprised to hear my own teen giving empathic support to his friends over Zoom—maybe he has been listening to his parents after all!
- Creating routines: Routines are an important healthy habit for all of us and can help us cope with change and reduce stress. Developing a daily routine during “stay at home” can help teens and families feel more in control of the situation. Some ideas:
- Consistent sleep times—sleeping until noon everyday and staying up until 2 AM may not be the best routine for your teen or your family. Negotiate what works for everyone.
- Family meals—engage in cooperative meal planning, cooking and mealtimes. Revel in the idea that your teen may have been so busy before that you haven’t shared dinner together in a long time! Let them plan—and cook—for you! Not only does this help with shared household responsibility, but your teen will develop important life skills for when they move out on their own.
- Weekly calendar planning—for example, a movie night, family housecleaning day, catch up with grandparents via Zoom time.
- Time to exercise, either together or alone—maybe to take a run alone, but walk the dog as a family or do an online yoga class together. You may be surprised at what your teen would like to do with you now that you are the closest thing to an “in-person” friend they have.
- Time and space to be alone—make sure everyone in the house has a space and time to be alone, even if just for a short period of time each day and be respectful of each other’s spaces. Your child’s room may be a mess, but it is their safe space and as long as it isn’t “hazardous” to anyone’s health, pick your battles.
- Social activities: Be sure to support your teen’s safe engagement with friends during this time. This may necessitate being more relaxed with some activities—such as online gaming. Although we would prefer our teens not spend hours each day in online gaming, right now this can be a very positive way for our teens to connect with friends and for their mental health. If I listen outside the door to my son gaming, I smile when I hear the voices of his friends and how they are laughing and enjoying each other’s company. The joy I hear in his voice, is calming for me. You may also decide that limited, social-distanced activities such as a hike or run with a friend are appropriate. Just be sure to have honest conversations with your teen about your trust that they will make good choices that align with your family values—and make sure they have a mask if they are going out!
- Adulting must continue: Having our teens at home may also warm our hearts in such a way that we want to care for our kids more like we did when they were younger, and they may easily and comfortably fall back into this nurturing routine. At this age, however, they must continue to work on their adulting skills, as they likely won’t be with us 24/7 forever. They should be engaged in school work, housework and contribute to the upkeep of the home, paid work if that is appropriate and open for them, and in being as we call it at our house “a good roommate”.
- Planning for future fun: With all the uncertainty, it is important for teens (and us!) to have something to look forward to. This can be as big as planning for their eventual move off to college or a future trip, or as small as planning to celebrate an obscure holiday you found online! We have had much fun recently celebrating such things as “May the 4th” and “Devil’s Food Cake Day”!
I hope that these tips about supporting teens during our times of social distancing are helpful and I am hopeful that our experiences with our teens during “stay at home” are only going to strengthen our relationships with them now and into the future.
By Kari J. Tanta, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, Manager, Children’s Therapy at Valley Medical Center