At a time in life when it’s both developmentally appropriate and culturally expected to seek independence from parents or guardians, teenagers have suddenly been brought back to the nest, their wings clipped for the foreseeable future while families stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 respiratory illness.

Living in close quarters may be especially tough for this age group, and helping them cope will involve listening, empathy and patience, says Peter Jackson, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, as well as an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

Here, he shares some guidance for parents and caregivers. 

Validate feelings

This is the time in their growing up when teens want to go their own way and explore the world outside the family’s circle, to find their own identity. I think there’s a strong stereotype that teenagers only want to be connected on social media nowadays, but that’s not the case – they’re missing real-life interactions with their peers. And so teenagers may be especially frustrated about being restricted in their movements and having to stay home under the same roof with their family all day, every day. That’s a pretty normal response. Having the adults in their life acknowledge and validate what they’re feeling will go a long way in helping them cope. 

Find and keep a routine

Even though teenagers sometimes fight against the routine more than little kids do, they still need some structure in regards to sleep, mealtimes, daily responsibilities and fresh air. It’s not a time to abandon all previously established expectations and limits. This might also be a good time to support them in the pursuit of a new goal or hands-on project that they wouldn’t otherwise have time to pursue.

Make sense of invincibility

Many teens feel invincible. That tendency is also developmentally normal. Evolutionarily, we know that there’s a reason why at a certain stage in life you need to be more risk-taking and you need to be willing to branch out from your family group. This group may be less accepting of being told to follow precautions that to them might seem over the top or burdensome. Understanding this may help parents find ways to reach teens where they are.

Tap into the desire to help others

Scare tactics towards fear or trying to instill guilt aren’t going to work that well with adolescents. Teenagers are more empathetic than we give them credit for. They can be really conscientious, and it’s not uncommon for them to be motivated by causes around social justice. Remind your teen that this is a chance to help the common good. We can empower them to be a part of something bigger, and to think outside of themselves. They are doing their part by staying home.

Grant some autonomy

The teen years are a time when kids need to take more ownership and demonstrate autonomy. It’s good to let them be independent in their remote learning. Parents should continue to check in and provide support but don’t need to take over their schooling. From middle school onwards teachers are gradually letting adolescents take more ownership and become more accountable. Parents can do the same.

Promote optimism without sugarcoating

Teenagers are going to be wondering about the future. They will want to know when sports will start back up, when they will be able to return to part-time jobs, if they will be able to keep their summer plans. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know. But as we do our part, I think we can have some optimism. It looks like areas that have committed to taking the necessary precautions are seeing improvement.”  Be truthful. Teenagers are mature enough that they don’t need it sugarcoated. It’s much easier for teens to just hear it as it is than to be falsely reassured. And they can deal with uncertainty too. We can say what we do know and then say, “We’re going to have to wait and see.”

Define, record and learn from the experience 

This is going to be a defining experience in your teen’s formative years. It has the potential to be incredibly and unforgettably informative. You may suggest that your teen keep a journal, reflecting on these changes. Consider prompting them to think about the things that they may have taken for granted, and talk about it too. There is also an opportunity for all of us to ask, “What really matters the most to me? What do I miss a lot? What do I want to bring back into my life? And what do I realize I’m really fine without?” I think that is a meaningful conversation for families to have. 

Reach Out to Teens Who Need Encouragement

While for some families this may be a bonding, almost nostalgic experience, many are extremely taxed right now. Our government mandates have wisely been attentive to socioeconomically challenged families and children with special education needs. There are so many additional adolescents who need to be on our minds as a community. Consider adolescents with depression or anxiety, adolescents for whom home has unfortunately not represented the center of their support system. Sadly, for some, home has been the opposite.  They don’t have some of the more caring adults in their life right now. If I could say something to our entire community, think about the families you know for whom this experience will be nothing like Little House on the Prairie. Who needs a phone call from you? If you’re a coach, which kid on your team needs an outreach? For a music teacher, which of your students could use a “Hello, how’s your practice going?” Offer some words of encouragement: “I care about you and I hope you’re doing well and I look forward to seeing you again.”

Give this guidance a try at home, but remember to be patient and kind to yourself, too. You are navigating this new and unchartered way of life alongside your teenager. Together, as a family, you might just find a new rhythm and grace that works for the personalities, feelings and shared experiences that live under your roof.

Peter Jackson, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and Children’s Hospital and assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

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