I see a lot of teens in my practice, and I have my own teens at home, so I can say with confidence that these last several months have been tough.

Differing perspectives

Teens and parents may have different beliefs, values, and goals, which can contribute to diverging perspectives on the current crisis.  From teens, I hear how much they want their own space away from parents and siblings; that it’s not fair that they can’t see their friends; that they are upset about missing typical milestones; and that parents just don’t understand what a big deal all of this is.  From parents, I hear that they can’t get their teens to leave their rooms, get off their phones, or stop gaming; that their teens aren’t doing their schoolwork; and that teens are constantly pushing the limits.  I also hear from both parents and teens how exhausted they are—worn out by the stress of Covid-19, virtual school, working from home, and all of the conflict.

Reducing Tension

Parenting a teen can be challenging during the best of times, and for most of us, these times have not been the best!  This public health crisis has affected all of us, and it’s likely that you (and your teen) have been more stressed, exhausted, and impatient than usual.

  • It’s important to recognize that characteristics of adolescence as a developmental period directly conflict with constraints of quarantine, and this can draw battle lines between teens and parents.  Most parents of teens recognize the importance of peer relationships and interactions and know that this age is all about increasing independence.  It can be helpful to remind yourself, though, that when teens are pushing back against limits or trying to find a loophole, they are doing exactly what teens are supposed to do.  The challenge becomes how to allow teens space to assert their autonomy and stay connected with friends, while preserving peace in your home and keeping everyone safe.
  • Starting with empathy and validation can go a long way toward defusing your teen’s frustration.  As parents, we are wired to soothe our children’s distress and it can be uncomfortable to sit with strong feelings.  When our teens are upset or angry, we often feel pulled to reassure (e.g., It’s going to be ok) or to instruct (e.g., You just need to go to bed earlier).  Empathy reflects connection and understanding, and validation communicates recognition and acceptance.  You might say something like, “It really stinks that you can’t hang out more with your friends, and it makes sense that you’re angry about that.  I wish you could see your friends more.  I know you miss them.”

Managing conflict

Conflict in families is normal and expected, and families under stress will likely have more disagreements.  Kids learn how to navigate conflict and repair relationships in the context of their families, so experiencing—and resolving—conflict is an important learning experience for teens.

  • As a parent to teens, it can be really difficult to figure out the right limits to set limits during this time and how strictly to enforce those limits.  We may see friends or family members handling this situation differently—which can make it even harder to decide what rules your family is going to follow.  This can be a good opportunity to invite your teen to be a partner in problem-solving.
  • It is wise to start by taking your own “emotional temperature.” Maybe you notice tension in your shoulders, that you’re clenching your jaw, or that you’re not using your inside voice.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, take a break to self-regulate before approaching your teen.   Taking a timeout to calm down is one way parents can model using healthy coping and communication strategies.
  • Problem solving with your teen is another chance to use empathy and validation.  Parents also need to be clear about their concerns.  For instance, if your teen is struggling with online instruction and not turning in assignments, you might start with: I know it’s hard to get your algebra assignments done right now, especially when you’re struggling to understand the concepts.  It’s been so frustrating.  It’s also important for parents to be explicit about their concerns, which sometimes requires us to think about the situation and our values a bit so we can communicate our position clearly.  For a teen struggling with online school, a parent might say, “I worry that you’ll fall further behind in school if you don’t get catch up on assignments.”
  • At this point, you can to invite your teen to participate in problem-solving with you.  What ideas do you have for catching up in algebra?  And then listen . . . this is a chance for you and your teen to collaborate on a solution, something that addresses your concern and your teen’s.  It’s not uncommon for teens new to this approach to resist participating, so be gentle with yourself if problem-solving falls flat the first time and remember that it can take awhile to adjust longstanding interaction patterns.

Sometimes, the first solution may not work, and you may have to return to problem-solving.  Each time you come together in this way is an opportunity to connect with your teen, to model flexibility and collaboration, and to give your teen a chance to practice problem-solving skills.  If this way of communicating is new for you and your teen, it may take some practice, so don’t be surprised if this is difficult the first few times.

Keep practicing kindness and check back here for more tips on parenting through the pandemic.