Welcome to the new normaland the social distancing blues. 

While most of us (even family pets) have had our routines upended for months, it’s important to remember that your older children—yes, your teenagers—might be taking this much harder than you think

It’s not just that they’re the first teens in our lifetimes to miss sports tournaments, sweet sixteens, theater performances, class trips, proms and graduations due to a pandemic. (If you snoop on their texts, you’ll probably see lots of sad, mad and laughing/crying emojis.) They’re disconnected from their activities and friends at a time in their lives when these connections and experiences are part of their cognitive development

It’s probably no surprise that lonely teenagers are more likely to grow into depressed, overweight and unhealthy grownups. During non-pandemic times, 8% of U.S. teens  attempt suicide each year and 70% report being lonely. In 2020, experts expect these numbers to trend higher.

So nope, just joking with your teens—“Hey, in 50 years you’ll tell your grandchildren what it was like to miss your high school graduation due to a pandemic”—won’t make them feel better.

Instead, try these five smart techniques to ease your kids’ anxiety, and all the other icky feels that stem from social distancing.

1. Pause to acknowledge their feelings.

It’s important to allow your teens to be sad or angry about how hard this pandemic has rocked their world (and not in a good way). By lending a sympathetic ear and simply being there to listen, you can help your teen process their feelings. That allows them to clear the way toward creatively handling the lockdown.

In addition, have a serious convo about why social distancing is important. Lots of parents are getting major pushback from their teens about why they can’t go out to see their friends. Emphasize that the more people who get exposed to the virus, the bigger and more exponential the risk. Your teens don’t know if the people they want to hang with have practiced responsible social distancing. The biggest takeaway? Even if your teen feels fine, he or she may be an asymptomatic carrier and then infect at-risk or older people, who could die. 

Plus, since COVID-19 is still so new, medical pros still aren’t totally sure how contracting the virus will affect different age groups. If teens contract the virus, there may be some dangerous implications that we haven’t discovered yet. Share with your teens the CDC’s guidelines on social distancing and wearing cloth face covers to slow the spread of the virus, especially as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Finally, expect that your teen might want to hole up in their room to feel all their feelings, and log some needed alone time. However, if you notice depressive symptoms—like spending weeks alone, sleeping all day or a pervasive low mood—consider reaching out to a therapist or provider who’s offering virtual sessions. And of course, if you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist, clergyperson or another trusted source.

2. Embrace “virtual life” as the new normal.

Yes, you might normally turn a more critical eye toward screen time. With your teens cut off from friends, talk to them directly about how you’d like them to use their smartphones and tablets to stay in touch with their classmates, friends and relatives. For example, you might loosen the reins and let them spend more time on social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram or Discord.

Plus, help them get creative in how they spend time with their friends—virtually. This is especially key if your teen is missing major milestone events like prom or graduation. We’re seeing fun virtual dance parties take the place of proms, so learn what your school has planned. For hanging out on the regular, FaceTime gatherings replace meeting up at Starbucks. Teens can also use Netflix Party for a Friday night cyber movie date with their friends. They can even attend live virtual concerts together, or visit the Grand Canyon (or other amazing destinations) with Google Earth.

And of course, make sure that your teens log face time via Zoom or Skype with other family members at a distance, like aunts, uncles, cousins and especially grandparents. If you’re co-parenting, encourage your teen to regularly communicate with their other parent through a video chat.

3. Create a structure for your teens. 

While you may be inwardly groaning at the elaborate color-coded daily schedules you’ve seen on Pinterest, consider why some structure is good for your teens. Right now, they need normalcy and predictability. Suddenly losing the routines they relied on can be a huge stressor.

How can you help your teenager or college student to create a manageable schedule? That can be as simple as setting alternate work and break times. They’ll experience being productive and then getting a reward, like socializing, exercising or doing something fun.

Living healthy is also part of a good structure. Talk to them about good food choices—and build in one or two family mealtimes where you can cook and eat together. (Check sites like Delish and Allrecipes for easy family dinner ideas.)

Of course, regular exercise goes a long way toward kicking negativity to the curb. Companies like Nike offer free online workouts for all fitness levels. Extra points if your teens go outside to shoot hoops, walk, jog or bike for at least 30 minutes a day. If you can break away from work to join them in the fresh air and sunshine, even better. 

Spending time in the great outdoors also helps regulate our day-and-night cycles. Encourage your teens to practice good sleep habits: If they go to bed and rise at generally the same times every day, they’re golden. That helps maintain a positive mood, plus fuels their efforts toward online learning.

4. Spend time as a family unit.

There’s the very distinct possibility that you’ve canceled that family vacation to Disney World by now. If your teens were hanging their hats on cruising to the Bahamas or RVing to Niagara Falls, they’re also feeling that loss, too. That’s why this is a great time to ask them what you can do together as a family.

You might be surprised by what they say: They might suggest a board game or regular family movie night. They might want to plant a garden. How about karaoke or a silly nerf gun fight? And don’t shoot down their ideas: Be open to a video game competition or a water balloon fight or a scavenger hunt. 

You can even make time-capsule smartphone videos to document your social-distancing experience that you rewatch in the coming months. Think of this time as a great opportunity to reconnect with your teens, especially at an age when people report feeling disconnected from their kids.

Finally, while working at home might have eliminated your daily commute, some parents are working more than ever. That’s why you should unblur the lines between work, school and home life. Set clear boundaries for when you turn off work and turn on uninterrupted time with your kids.

5. Encourage them to practice mindfulness.

When our routines are radically disrupted, we all experience sadness, disappointment, anger and anxiety. Mindfulness can help us recognize and feel our emotions, with no judgement. That can go a long way toward your teens accepting and further processing their maelstrom of emotions, along with everyone else.

The best part? You can practice mindfulness together, whether it’s just sitting quietly outside or following a guided meditation together. Lots of therapists and mindfulness coaches offer exercises online or via virtual sessions, if you’re not sure where to start.

Plus, you won’t mind as much when your teen grabs their smartphone, if they’re tuning into a mindfulness or meditation app like Headspace, Insight Timer, Breethe and Calm, all chock full of short guided meditations, relaxing music and inspiring visualizations.

Gratitude can also go a long way toward easing some of the social distancing discomfort. You and your teen can each fashion a gratitude journal and respond to the same prompts, like: Write about the music you’re grateful to listen to and why. Then, share your thoughts with each other.

As an extension of gratitude, are there ways you and your teens can pay it forward during the pandemic? Maybe you can pick up and deliver groceries to an at-risk neighbor or relative. Could your teen send e-cards or letters to people who don’t have immediate family around them? Can they record cheerful video messages to send to those who could use some uplifting?

Ultimately, experts predict that we’ll be dealing for some form of social distancing for the foreseeable future. If you put some (or all) of these practices into place, you’ll give your teen the tools they need to survive and thrive.

If you need help with a family law matter, our attorneys at Keith & Levine Family Law can provide you with the professional advice you need to make an educated decision. Schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys today.

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