Self-Care and Social Distancing
It has been said online and through various news media outlets that if you want to learn how to “deal with” social distancing just as your teenager. There is a universal thought process that teenagers, second to Bigfoot, are the champions of social distancing. Unfortunately, for several reasons, both emotional and physiological, your teen may be experiencing a struggle; they seem to control well on the outside, but on the inside, things are falling apart.
Teens and adolescents have all likely read or heard about the AIDS epidemic, the refugee crisis, and the civil rights movement. Many are also familiar with other epidemics and pandemics that have circled our globe at some point in history ranging from Ebola and SARS in recent years to the “Spanish Flu” in 1918 and the “Black Plague.” They have learned about these events either in school, through family, or even on the news, but these events are distant events which have, for the most part, not had a direct impact on their day to day lives. It is likely safe to say that your adolescent or teen does not personally know someone who was touched by the flu pandemic in 1918, but they may well know someone who has been or will be impacted by the events going in outside their door today. Someday, students in school will learn about COVID-19 in the same way, and it will be forgotten in the same manner. However, for now, COVID-19 or Coronavirus is very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds, your teens included.
The reality is, there is no “we have been through this before” for your teen to look back on. This is even more true for high school seniors today as they are in a unique position. Today’s senior was born during the aftermath of 9/11, one of our nation’s history-changing events. Now, they are set to graduate, somehow, amid the fallout of a pandemic that has completely altered the way we communicate, live, work, and function each day. Additionally, many of these teenagers are supposed to be experiencing milestone life events this spring, such as proms, college tours, the SAT’s and, of course, graduation, many of which have simply been canceled. This is certainly resulting in a variety of emotions as your teen feels like they are missing out on important (never again achievable) experiences in their lives. While adjustments are being made to accommodate social distancing guidelines, this still doesn’t feel the same and rightly so. There is something very different about a virtual prom party or virtual graduation ceremony. One simply cannot duplicate the feelings and experience associated with sitting alongside your classmates in a crowded auditorium (or sweltering football field) while anxiously awaiting someone telling you to “move your tassel.” That doesn’t feel even remotely similar when conducted through the use of virtual reality or video conferencing.
While parents and other adults are attempting to look at the “big picture” and put things into perspective (“staying healthy is the number one priority right now”- this does nothing to dull the emotions currently being experienced by teens and adolescents of all ages, as adults, we are a little better able to foresee better days ahead because many of us have lived through some of the events previously mentioned, we realize there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel which helps to solidify our understanding that this situation, while unpleasant, inconvenient and frankly a little scary, is indeed temporary. So, once the adults of the household have found our stability, what can we do to help our teenagers and other adolescents in the family to find theirs?
Teenagers and Social Distancing
As noted above, teenagers often view themselves as invincible. All one needs to do is watch the nightly news (post stay at home orders and the publishing of social distancing guidelines) to see the crowds of spring break attendees to realize many teenagers and young adults do not necessarily understand the fragility of this current situation. Teenage minds and bodies are still growing. Their prefrontal cortexes will not be fully developed for several years to come. The prefrontal cortex is the area located in the cerebral cortex of the brain (the very front part of the frontal lobe) where planning, complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, decision making, and the moderating of right and wrong as it applies to social behavior are controlled. This is the reason why many teenagers feel invincible and also a potential reason why social distancing practices during the COVID-19 pandemic may be rather difficult for teens. Unfortunately, social distancing is essential for people of all ages as anyone can get COVID-19. Although teens and children do not often exhibit the symptoms of the illness, they can certainly pass the disease on to others who are less able to handle it, such as the elderly or those who have a compromised immune system or preexisting illness.
How to Help Maintain Emotions and Self Care
Understanding our emotions during these particularly challenging times can be difficult at best. We are all experiencing an event, unlike anything we have previously gone through. It is valuable to understand how we process feelings and emotions. As adults, we are likely to process things differently than our teens. We also understand some of the things we can do around self-care to help through these times. Below are some things we can do for and with our teens to help them with self-care and emotion.
Acknowledge feelings and emotions
First, we must notice and witness the losses that have and will come as an inevitable part of the COVID-19 pandemic. There will be loss of life as well as the loss of freedom, and events teens view as once in a lifetime. While it is not as likely your teen will lose friends their age to the pandemic directly, they may indeed lose relatives who are older or other people in their lives, such as teachers and other family members. Additionally, they have lost access to their freedom and time with their friends. For some, this is the last school year where they will interact with people, they have spent the last decade or so around. Their graduation ceremonies, senior proms, and senior sporting seasons have been canceled, and these are events they cannot get back. These are hard things to process for many teens. Allow your teen to sit with and process their grief as opposed to offering suggestions as to why it isn’t that bad. Statements like “it could be worse” or “this is about more than just you” are not helpful at this time. In reality, it is about them and everything they perceive as a loss. There is likely little to nothing you as a parent can do to take away the sting of these losses. They are raw and bitter and will sting for some time to come.
However, out of every loss and hardship, a newfound strength and resolve are often developed. Adults know this based on experience, and the wisdom acquired with age. For teens, this is a bitter learning curve, but grief can have positive outcomes. Grief generally starts with a loss and processes through various emotions until we can process what has been lost and what is left. It is the job of adults to help teens look to what is left and help them with the self-care necessary to process in a healthy manner what has been lost. To do this, take the time to connect with them. Sit down with them and have a real conversation where they are allowed to express their emotions and know that you are taking their feelings and concerns seriously because to them-these are serious and emotionally challenging events.
Introduce or Improve Structure
Many schools across the United States have closed for the duration of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although students are still expected to complete their work to successfully advance to the next year (or to graduate), they are expected to do so in a manner that is foreign to many students and parents alike. Online education and homeschooling are not what most people sign on for when they begin their education. As a result, the daily structure that your teen (and children of all ages) has grown accustomed to over the years has been effectively tossed out the window. There is no longer a start time and end time to their school day. The weekends and weekdays tend to run together, and due dates or significant test dates are no longer of concern.
Structure is vital to everyone, so to help maintain order and organization it may be beneficial to structure the day as much as possible. Involve your teen in the planning process. Try to maintain a start time and end time for schoolwork, so they are not struggling to complete assignments at the bitter end of the evening or falling behind in their studies. Online education can be very challenging as there aren’t often deadlines or accountability, so an organized schedule can be very beneficial. Also, schedule a few fun things to do each day that are not related to education. Perhaps a video chat with friends or some online game time that involves a group of friends. This may help to remove the sting of social distancing and the inability to socialize with friends each day.
This is also a great time to spend time together as a family if the schedule permits. Many parents are also home during this time as businesses have closed, and many workers are either temporarily at home or teleworking. There are also fewer obligations, such as soccer practice or other after-school activities. This could be an excellent time to bring back family game night or go for a walk outside or even get in the kitchen and bake. Regardless of the activity, time with family may help to reduce the anxiety associated with lost time with friends.
Create a Solid Foundation
Basics are important and well, basic. A healthy diet and regular sleeping patterns will help to keep the members of your household healthy. Focus on getting outside regularly and assuring your teen gets outside to get fresh air and be away from electronics when possible. To make virtual education successful, many schools have turned to iPads and computer-based learning out of necessity. This inevitably means your teen is now spending much of their day hooked into electronics either for personal reasons or for learning purposes. Try to take time away from electronics as a family and focus on the people side of things while still remembering socialization via technology will be the primary means for your teen to communicate with their peers for the foreseeable future.
Gather and Reinforce Support Systems
Pretty much every aspect of life is virtual right now. Food is ordered online and delivered or picked up via “contactless delivery.” Many of life’s essential items are ordered online and delivered. Stores and coffee shops where people generally gather have shut down. Parks and playgrounds are deserted. Under these circumstances, it can be hard to remember that your support system of family and friends are still out there. As an adult, try to remind your teen that also they may feel isolated; they are not alone in this. Fortunately, we live in a time of advanced technology where Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and a host of other video chat capable technologies exist to help soften the feelings of isolation. Additionally, planned “events” such as Netflix viewing parties can help teens to feel connected to their peers in real-time.
It is also imperative that you, as a parent, model a good self-care routine. Take a moment to analyze how you are handling these events. How are you managing stress and anxiety? What strengths and capabilities do you have that you model for your teen?
These times are indeed challenging. They have been referred to by many as events that occur once in a lifetime or once in a century. Hopefully, this is true. For many, they have resulted in feelings of anxiety and isolation. For teens, there are indeed feelings of depression, anger, and frustration as they struggle to find a new normal. As parents, we cannot put a Band-Aid on this to make it better. We can, however, help to model healthy self-care routines and encourage our teens to practice similar habits. These times will end, and we will come out stronger for having the experience.