How Parents Shape their Teen’s Mental Health During Pandemic

stressed familyMost parents work really hard to raise their children in the best way that they can. Circumstances can make that job easier or harder, depending on a parent’s own stress level. Right now, the pandemic is making it much, much harder. With job losses, school closures, and political uncertainty, 2020 has made it difficult for anyone to reasonably hold it together.

The good news is that you don’t have to hide your fears, act like you have everything together, or be a ray of sunshine all the time to be a good parent during these difficult times. Our youth’s mental health will be positively influenced by a parent who acknowledges and validates tough feelings, engages in self-care, keeps open lines of communication with their children, and emphasizes hope.

Acknowledge Feelings

The truth is that life is uncomfortable for all of us at different points in our lives, and experiencing difficult emotions is inevitable. Parents often think that they need to protect their children from these truths, but honestly, denying our pain can actually harm our kids more in the long run. Teens are careful observers and pick up on our emotional cues more than we realize. They know when we are stressed even if we are trying to hide it.

The best thing parents can do is acknowledge their struggles with their children in an age-appropriate way and model a healthy response to that stress. Talking to teens about your feelings normalizes these emotions and shows them that it’s acceptable to express them. It also helps teen label feelings correctly, which allows them to become more self-aware and emotionally intelligent, an important quality for success in adulthood. Additionally, communication helps teens know that their parent’s stress isn’t their fault, which is a common misperception by children. Finally, when parents talk about how they are dealing with their stress, they are showing teens how to handle their own stress, both now and in the future.

Model Self-Care

Our culture tends to encourage parents to put their kids’ needs over their own. In fact, we have been conditioned to believe we are being selfish if we take care of ourselves. But, children thrive best when they have healthy parents in their lives. It’s not selfish to prioritize our mental health because everyone in the family benefits when we take good care of ourselves.

Good self-care during this pandemic can take many forms – some people feel better from exercise, listening to music, journaling, reading, taking a long bath, meditating, ordering food instead of cooking, and connecting with friends in video calls. These are all positive ways to cope with stress. It’s also important to let go of high expectations to accommodate this new temporary reality. When we model these behaviors, it shows teens how to deal with stress in a healthy manner.

Practice Active Listening

During times of significant stress, most people simply want to be heard. Typically, a stressed individual isn’t looking for a solution, but rather the opportunity to discuss what they are struggling with. Just hearing your teen’s complaints, and not offering solutions or disagreeing, is a really valuable gift to give a young person and offers you the best way to learn what’s happening in your teen’s life.

Active listening is when you are not thinking about anything other than what is being said to you. Stop what you are doing and look at your teenager with proper attention. When your teen is talking to you, you should be spending time trying to understand his or her viewpoint or feelings, not trying to develop arguments or rebuttals to what he or she is saying. You do not have to agree or disagree with them; just make them aware that you understand how they feel. If you want your teen to share their feelings, you must give your teen the opportunity to share them without judgment or interruption, and then most importantly, let them know that their feelings are normal. Truly listening to children builds trust and lets them know that you are interested in their thoughts, ideas and feelings.

Categorize Control

When facing a crisis, research shows that people who don’t take any action start feeling helpless, which can lead to depression. As a result, it can be helpful to identify what things in your world are under your control and what things are out of your control. For example, it can bring your teen a feeling of relief to state out loud that the virus, disrupted schooling, and racial unrest are out of their control. When teens identify what they can control in their lives, such as exercise, sleep, and finding ways to help others, they can feel a sense of purpose and begin adapting to their day-to-day challenges.

Express Confidence in Child’s Abilities

Teens already experience a lot of self-doubt during the adolescent stage of life, but the pandemic is only intensifying their worries. Do not dismiss their anxiety, but let your teen know that you believe in them. Tell your teen that you are confident that they can handle these difficult times and come out of the pandemic a stronger and more resilient person.

Emphasize Hope

Children need to feel safe, secure, and positive about their present and future. Adults can help by focusing children’s attention on stories about how people come together, find creative solutions to difficult problems, and overcome adversity during the pandemic. Talking about these stories can be healing and reassuring to your teen.

Final Thoughts…

Parents should pay attention for signs that their teen is in mental distress. It’s normal for teens to experience moodiness, irritability, anxiety, and sadness during the pandemic, but these states should fluctuate. Your teen should experience good days and bad days. If your teen seems stuck in an emotional rut and unable to feel better, or if they experience sudden changes in behavior, parents should contact their pediatrician to determine if their teen should speak with a mental health professional, and obtain a referral.

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