Six Ways Teachers and Parents Can Help Their Teens Cope

I’m a high school health teacher, and since San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, I’ve been conducting Zoom classes with my students–entering their homes every day through a computer screen. Teaching and learning in a virtual classroom are a very different experience for all of us, so is spending all of our time at home suddenly and completely cut off from friends, peers, and even casual but comforting interactions with acquaintances and complete strangers.

As a teacher and a parent, I wanted to understand more about how the current situation is impacting my students. My kids and my students have always been my best teachers, so I decided to go right to the source. In our opening class check-in last week I asked my students to talk about their daily lives, family time, and how they’re navigating this new “normal.” 

mom and daughter
Making your home a peaceful refuge will help reassure your teen. (Twenty20 @hellomikee)

I asked my students how they were faring

Not surprisingly, my students’ experiences varied widely. For some, family time is welcome and peaceful, for others it is fraught and strained. Some kids are lonely without their friends because social media just “doesn’t do it” or is not an adequate replacement for “the real thing.” A bunch have FOMO because they don’t have a phone or access to others through social media. Others are relieved they don’t have to deal with all the little awkward interactions they find exhausting at school.

Many are bored, and quite a few excited to pursue interests they didn’t have time for given the pressures of school. Some are feeling vulnerable, bullied or harassed by their friends on different platforms. And, like all of us, they are experiencing a wide and changing spectrum of emotions during this crisis: my students, my own kids, and many of their friends report that they may experience many of these feelings throughout the day. 

6 way teachers and parents can help kids cope 

1.First, acknowledge your own experience. As adults, we’re all experiencing our own rollercoaster of emotions, and facing our own very real financial fears and stresses, not to mention worries about our own health and that of our loved ones. This outbreak has suddenly changed all of our lives, and this uncertainty is challenging for almost everyone.

What we’re all living through now is unprecedented; when you talk to your kids, it’s important to acknowledge that and your own uncertainties about the future. At the same time, it’s important that we don’t burden our kids with too much worry and stress. Help your child manage how much news they consume and what sources it comes from.

As the adult, take on the responsibility of gathering information, and try to be as reassuring as you can be, while being honest about the seriousness of the situation. Making your home a peaceful refuge will help reassure your child that your family is a source of solace and strength, challenging times or not.

2. Role model adaptability. Create a daily family routine and try to stick to it, but be flexible. If kids are doing online school, help them make their workspace as quiet and comfortable as possible, and do the same with your own. Heighten their awareness of what their background includes and encourage them to provide it with their own creative touches.

Take your own work and work hours seriously, and encourage them to do the same. Make sure they understand that an online class is very different from online chats with friends, and that they need to show up on time and dress accordingly. Try not to let your work life take over — take breaks and stretch or go for a walk, and try to stop work at around the same time every day and shut your computer, and encourage your kids to do the same. 

3. Focus on the family. Carve out opportunities for regular family time. Make dinner a time to connect, and encourage family activities like board games and walks. Rotate who gets to choose what you’ll all do together. Don’t force too much togetherness, though: we’re all different in terms of how much independent time we need, and it’s important to honor those different needs. Some of my students have mentioned enjoying the opportunity to pursue interests that they don’t have time for in school.

Ask about and support your kids’ interests. This is a good time to be a little more structured about family chores, if you aren’t already. Chores encourage kids to think of others and what it means to contribute to a family. Assign kids a night to cook, an area of the house to clean, or a grocery-shopping shift, for example. Share the added responsibilities of more people in the house all of the time, which leads to more cooking, cleaning and dishes. 

4. Encourage virtual social time. Your teenager wants and needs to connect with friends, and it’s important to honor that. Normal rules about screen and phone time will likely need to be adjusted, given the new shelter-in-place reality, since they provide some of the only ways for teens to feel connected and like they still belong to a community. Still, this doesn’t mean that anything goes.

I always encourage parents to get curious about how their pre-teens and teenagers are connecting and communicating in cyberspace, and these are important conversations to have now more than ever. Talk about screen time with your teenager and agree on some guidelines, and check in frequently to make sure they’re staying safe, and keeping up with school, home, and other responsibilities. and 

5. Encourage and model kindness and compassion in real life and online. Sheltering in place has compounded many social dynamics for all of us, in our family space as well as the digital. However, one thing that doesn’t change is that how we treat each other matters. So, model what we hope our kids will enact. And look for opportunities to talk to your teens about their online social interactions. Avoid why (we’ve already made a judgement) and lead with what or how, and I notice. You can ask, “How are you and others socially connecting?” “What’s different or the same?” “Are people treating each other online like they would if they were in the physical space at school?”

Family movies provide another opportunity to highlight the fundamental values of healthy relationships (both as friends and as romantic partners) including dignity, empathy, mutual respect, care, and consent. Ask questions like, “Did both characters get to walk away with their dignity?” “Was that consensual?” “Do you think she acted like a good friend in that situation?” “How might you have handled that differently?” 

6. Finally, honor their feelings. Parents facing serious financial pressure, health concerns, or worries about friends and loved ones, may overlook the very real disappointment and grief their teens are feeling. Many kids have lost the opportunity to play on the school sports team, star in the school play, or join their friends on the graduation stage. Others won’t ever get to go to junior prom, or play the violin in the spring concert.

While these disappointments may seem small in comparison to job loss or grave illness, they’re very real, and for many teens they’re crushing. Acknowledge your teens’ disappointment and loss, and encourage them to talk about it, when they’re ready. Help them come up with alternative ways to mark these occasions (a Zoom celebration on prom night for example) whenever possible. 

They are all missing out

One of my three kids is a high school senior. Like seniors around the country, she’s missing out on the collective celebratory experience of “senior spring,” a final sports season, and now worries about whether she will get to attend graduation and be able to start college in the fall. So many expectations have been hijacked. She is deeply disappointed and struggles with feeling so distraught about losses that she knows pale in comparison to the hardships so many others are experiencing right now. Then, just the other night, she got to participate in a virtual senior year celebration.

In an effort to feel connected while apart, the student body co-presidents at her school asked each senior to lip sync a line from the High School Musical song “We’re all in this together,” and wove them together to make a short film. Our family gathered together to watch, and it was funny, sad, and special all at the same time. The five of us huddled around a screen, sharing in her joy and disappointment. It was a palpable reminder that as a family we support each other through what’s hard, celebrate what’s joyful, and call on our resilience to persist. 

This is a challenging time for everyone. Instead of drifting off to our own separate screens, make an effort to find ways to connect. You could start by asking, “Now that we are all together so much as a family, what would be helpful for us to know?” Their insight may astound you. After all, we’re all in this together. 

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About Shafia Zaloom

Shafia Zaloom is a health educator and national consultant who specializes in teaching young people about healthy sexuality and relationships. She is the author of the book Sex, Teens & Everything in Between.

Read more posts by Shafia

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