One of the reasons difficult circumstances are hard to deal with is because we feel out of control. When we don’t know how to “fix” something or what to expect next, our fear increases. In fact, studies have shown that people who feel in control of their lives report better mental health, fewer physical pains, and faster recovery from illnesses.
The Coronavirus pandemic is one of those situations that snatches control right out of our hands. We don’t know what to expect, we fear for our health and the health of our loved ones, and it imposes a lot of changes in our lifestyle that we don’t like. Teens are no exception. They may feel angry that they are stuck at home. They might be worried about their grandparents’ health (or other loved ones). They may feel frustrated that their schedule is so uncertain. These are all normal emotions, and parents should listen and acknowledge their anxiety and frustration. But after you validate their feelings, one of the best things parents can do is to find ways to give teens some control of their lives again.
In addition, disasters can easily make us feel helpless. Studies show that we feel better when we help others or we feel we are making a contribution to a solution bigger than ourselves. Many adolescents find a lot of joy and confidence in helping others.
Here are some practical ways to help teens take back some control of their lives and feel they are part of the solution to the pandemic:
Practice good hygiene. First, teach your teen that the number one thing they can do to help others during this pandemic is to avoid spreading the virus. Tell them that by following the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) they are significantly impacting the community for the good. They become part of the solution to the pandemic when they follow these procedures: stay home as much as possible; keep 6 feet away from all people; and wash hands frequently for at least 20 seconds.
Establish healthy habits. Your body is best able to fight off infection when it’s healthy, so encourage your teen to take care of themselves physically. They should eat healthy food, drink lots of water, exercise, and get at least 9 hours of sleep each night.
Create a schedule or routine. Establishing a schedule helps your teen feel in control of their time. Despite how much we think we want freedom in our days, research continually demonstrates that routines boost productivity, alleviate anxiety, and improve our mood. Teens often use breaks in school to sleep in late and generally do what they want when they want. But, this is not your typical school break, and creating a schedule will actually provide them with a sense of control. Let your teens know the benefits of routines and then negotiate with them to create one that works for them. Have them get up and go to bed at the same time Monday through Friday. Establish a schedule of when they will do online school work, have free time, meals and physical activity. Be realistic and build in breaks, because sitting and working for three hours in a row isn’t feasible for most youth.
Share compassion. One of the best ways to fight the feeling of helplessness during times of disaster is by helping others. When we can make someone else feel better, it makes us feel better, too. Encourage your teen to get creative in how they can shower kindness on neighbors or other community members in a safe way. Perhaps they can bake some treats and leave them on the doorstep of the local police or fire department. Maybe they could perform some yard work for an elderly neighbor. They could create handmade cards to send to troops overseas or to give to a local nursing home to distribute to their elderly patients.
Plan ahead for worst-case. Sometimes our minds won’t let go of a worry. Some teens might be afraid a loved one will become sick. High school seniors are likely worried about graduation. Other teens might be anxious that school will be disrupted for the rest of the year (and other teens might be rejoicing!). Find out what your teen is concerned about and develop a concrete plan for that scenario. When we have a plan in place, we once again feel in control and our anxiety decreases.
Discuss media. Use this opportunity to teach your teen the difference between reputable sources and online hype. For instance, in this particular coronavirus outbreak, the CDC is a safe and reputable source of information. Arm your teen with truth and facts about coronavirus so that they don’t fall victim to the many ridiculous claims being circulated. At the same time, you will be preparing them for adulthood by learning to discern between fact and fiction from media.
Learn independent living skills for the future. If you are going to be home a lot with your teen, there is no better time to teach them some important skills for adulthood. Learning something new will help your teen fight off boredom, keep their brain active, and prepare them to live independently. Ideas include cooking, budgeting, doing laundry, nutrition, home safety, making appointments, writing a resume, interviewing for a job, and financial management. Giving teens these skills helps them feel in control and more confident about their future.