Helping Teens Cope as Coronavirus Precautions Continue

Even as more of the Bay Area economy reopens, it is increasingly clear that coronavirus restrictions and precautions will be in place for the foreseeable future.
Many families are weary of sheltering in place and avoiding close contact with friends, a restriction that can be especially difficult for teens who thrive on social connection.
“It’s had a big impact on my mental health. I am an extrovert. I like being around people. I use a busy schedule as a coping mechanism for not overthinking,” says Sanaa Zavery, 17, a recent high school graduate from Hillsborough and member of the Teen Wellness Committee at the Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto. 
While Zavery has had a few in-person visits with friends while practicing social distancing, she is continuing to be careful because her mother is in a higher risk group for COVID-19. As time passes, the situation is becoming more difficult, she says.
“You’re running out of things to do. You’re not able to participate in your interests,” says Zavery, who has opted to take a gap year due to coronavirus rather than head to college in the fall and is unsure what the next year will look like. “Social media during this time has been kind of hard. It’s aggravating to see people hang out in groups and not take it seriously.”
By necessity, families are starting to figure out which allowed activities – from retail shopping to camps to travel – they’re willing to participate in and what their risk tolerance is. 
That goes for teens as well, says Patrice Crisostomo, Ph. D., a Children’s Health Council program manager.
“As parents, you’ll have to negotiate what kind of compromise will feel workable.
We want our teens to spend time with friends while we also have to make sure they’ll remain safe,” she says. “We may be more willing to negotiate around activities if they’ve demonstrated wise decision-making in past.”
“If your teen wants to ride bike to a friend’s house, if you’ve seen they will wear a mask, if you know who this friend is, if you know the other friend’s parent is there and supervising, and you know the other family is practicing physical distancing like your family,” you may be more likely to say yes, she says. “If they demonstrate they aren’t making wise decisions, you’ll have to talk with them about why you’re tightening restrictions.”
“This level of negotiation can feel like more work for parents because it is, but in the long run it can be more effective because it allows your child to learn critical problem-solving skills and how to resolve conflict more effectively,” she adds.
Communication is key, Crisostomo says, and it’s important for parents to regularly check in with their kids to see how they are handling the stressors of life with coronavirus as well as the recent focus on police brutality and racial injustice.
“Provide a space to talk about coronavirus, the current protests and movements around bringing awareness to systemic racism and injustice, and other topics that may not be related,” she says. “Ask more open-ended questions and be patient…. Let them know ahead of time: ‘I want to check in with you about XYZ. Let me know when you’re ready.’”
“A common fear we’ve heard from parents is that talking to your teen may increase their worry or level of stress,” Crisostomo adds. But “we know kids and teens can worry about things that are far worse than reality.”
Charlie McClintock, another recent high school graduate and Teen Wellness Committee member who recently moved from Los Altos to Montana, says he struggled with his mental health as a sophomore and sought help through therapy.
“For parents, I would say reach out, don’t wait. … I think, obviously, no one really wants to talk about their mental health. You have to start off somewhere else, a normal conversation, and ease your way into it,” says McClintock, who plans to attend college in Milwaukee in the fall. “Really, there’s truly a relief that comes along when you finally open up to your parents about everything.”
As their normal routines are upended, teens may also be mourning the loss of expected milestones with so much canceled or on hold, from proms and graduations to getting driver’s licenses or even attending college. 
Crisostomo says parents should be concerned if they see signs their child is not functioning normally. Depression may look different in kids and teens, with signs including sleep changes, difficulty with appetite, lower energy and irritability instead of sadness.
“I would encourage parents to trust their gut,” she says, adding that parents can talk to teachers, friends or their pediatrician, or reach out for a free consultation through the Children’s Health Council or similar organizations. The Crisis Textline is always available by texting BAY to 741-741. CHC also offers a free resource library with articles, videos, webinars and more.
Zavery, who has started therapy during shelter in place, agrees that it’s important that parents check in on their children’s mental health, but just as important that they give their teens space.
“When we were in school, you wouldn’t see your parents for eight or nine hours a day, and now you see them all the time,” she says. “Not always trying to enforce family time or bonding time is important. That gets annoying. … Give your kids alone time, let them FaceTime their friends or sit in their room and recharge.”
“Also, I’ve noticed my emotions are pretty quick to change. I’ll be happy one moment and super sad or angry the next. Be understanding of that,” she adds. “Already, teenagers have changing moods or constant mood swings, and during this time it’s even worse.”
Zavery says one of the things that has helped her most is focusing on the positives of the situation, like spending more time and developing a closer relationship with her younger sister.
“One of the big things I’ve been saying is at least I’m spending a lot of time with my family before I go to college,” she says. 
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


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