Depending on where you live, it’s been just over or just under 44 days, 17 hours, and 9 minutes since Americans were ordered to shelter in place and schools shuttered their doors to students. Parents, you have A LOT of thoughts and feelings about this.

Not that we’re “x-ing’ off the days or anything.

But…..we’re concerned. How is online learning going….like, really? How engaged and motivated are teens to finish assignments, study for AP tests, or join the Google meet?

One person put it poignantly: “People are sick and in the hospital; some people are fighting for their lives. And my teachers still want me to do homework?! It’s too much!”

Anxiety, anger, resignation; these are just some of the emotions that are growing in households. Parents know that for teens, living with Covid 19 and following social distancing and quarantining guidelines goes against every single adolescent value, and dashes the opportunities teens have to create full engagement in their lives. These emotions take up time and space both inside and out a person, and the mental load they pack are in direct conflict to the increased focus and higher levels of motivation required for distance learning.

Natural and progressing adolescent development means teens are excited about learning and practicing independence-quarantining means staying home and being accountable to and dependent on family. It means teens want and need to spend a lot of time with friends- but quarantining means very limited social interactions, with a lot of new, unwanted rules of engagement. Teens are planning for the future-quarantining means uncertain futures.

All of these limits and the losses they cause can result in decreased attention and focus on school engagement and performance for teens. Most households also have the devastating burden of unemployment, going to the workplace and leaving kids to learn on their own, or doing their jobs from home and overseeing education needs. It’s overwhelming and scary.

How can parents respond to their child’s losses, and continue encouraging school participation?

It starts, and ends, with empathy. Even though adolescents are frustrated about spending more time than usual with family, parents are uniquely able to offer deep compassion and understanding to their children because of the parent/child bond. There is no right or wrong way to do this, and when it’s not available, don’t force it. How about, though, when you look into your teen’s eyes and you see their upset, and you feel your heart leap, or kind of melt a bit? That’s the time to blurt out: “I’m so sorry this is so hard. I know you’re going to get through it, but that doesn’t make it any easier in this moment. I really care about how you feel.”

Showing acceptance of emotions, and empathy for big disappointments goes a long way.

Teens are experiencing profound and devastating losses in their lives right now. The loss of important rites of passages: graduation, proms, college recruitment events, college tours, once-a-year performances or conferences. Believe it or not, some teens are angry that they can’t take the college prep tests such as the ACT or the SAT because they’ve spent hours studying, only to have them cancelled.

There’s the loss of important everyday interactions. Romance, practice, drama or choir class, youth groups, a favorite teacher or coach;  the brief but reliable human connections teens feel at school.

And, the loss of the future possibilities- on campus recruitment for jobs or volunteering and making summer travel, work, or social plans can’t happen right now.

Struggling with the emotions of loss, like sadness, loneliness, and confusion about your purpose make it very hard to be productive. And lowered productivity can bring on feeling guilty or having critical thoughts.

Empathy and care are powerful because they communicate to teens that we understand and respect their feelings, and we don’t judge or minimize it. Parents can’t bring back any of these experiences, but we can name the emotions as normal and understandable.

Supporting some social distancing opportunities is crucial for boosting self esteem and sense of belonging.

Please don’t let this scare you off because you hear me saying we should have a party. Please put your family and community’s gathering requirements first. What I do want to say is: our brain is a big, wonderful muscle, and when it’s overworked, it gets tired, just like any other. Without the dynamic and rich social networking on campus learning provides, teens get bored fast sitting in front of an online homework assignment. For adolescents, being social is one of the most gratifying ways to rest the reasoning centers of the brain. When your teen asks you to relax the rules a bit so they can see friends (virtually or in person), see if you can’t create a constructive conversation that relies heavily on their input. It can start like this: “I get it, and I think it’s important too. You know we have to follow social distancing rules and keep people safe…but I really want to help with this. What were you thinking?” You’re showing that this relationship is mutually respectful and you’re promoting some important skills for independence through problem solving together, and you will most likely reduce or do away with an argument.

When we stress, we regress.

If I’ve said this once I’ve said it a thousand times, so in case you’re wondering who replaced your teenager with a toddler, this would be your answer-when we stress, we regress. In all seriousness though- when we are feeling sad and helpless and out of control, most humans need lots of unstructured time, and lots of nurturing. Parents, think about asking for, or giving, nurturing in your family in small but meaningful ways. Make extra coffee, or take five minutes to give a shoulder rub. Could offering that nurture to your teen be treating them, in a loving way, like the younger child they might be acting like? Go ahead and rub their head, or make them the grilled cheese, or let them FaceTime at 3am. Not always, but just for right now. It feels good, to move from the have-to’s into these small but loving acts.

This wholehearted parenting can create closeness, increase communication, and help your teen’s natural strengths shine through to support their academic success.

I’m parenting this right alongside you, and as always, welcome your comments and questions. Reach out if you need more time with me for a virtual or in-person session today.


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