Many parents of teens are agonizing over how to cope with another four to six weeks of social distancing. My neighbor’s 14-year-old, usually sweet-tempered, has been screaming at her mother over chores and online assignments from school. Another friend’s teen daughter snarls at her father — who is 67 and medically fragile — when he asks her to wear a mask outside.
Adolescents may be angry at their current situation. And they often vent that anger by slamming doors and slinging insults at their parents, who are juggling jobs or unemployment worries with entertaining their offspring and providing assistance with everything from math homework to friendships complicated by a lack of in-person contact.
Nina, a mom in Oregon who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her family’s privacy, describes her 16-year-old son’s initial reaction to the social distancing mandate as a mixture of grief and denial. That has been compounded by the fact that the parents of some of his friends have continued to allow group gatherings.
“One of the parents invited a bunch of kids on a camping trip, and my husband and I said no,” she says. “First, my son tried to go with his frontal lobes and tell me the pandemic wasn’t that bad in Oregon. When my husband and I didn’t respond, he stormed outside and slammed the door. He feels micromanaged, like he’s being put in a straitjacket. He cycles back and forth between acceptance and fury.”
Teens have reacted to the pandemic with anger for a number of reasons, according to clinical psychologist Sherry Kelly, including a lack of control over their situation, too much screen time and just plain boredom. Kelly, the founder of PositiviTeens, workshops that provide strategies for teen anger and depression, explains why normally mellow kids are erupting with rage.
“Teens are action-oriented. They’re supposed to be practicing for adulthood, concentrating on the development of the self as individual, and that’s been snatched away,” she says. “Instead they’re being treated like children with very little control over their life in this covid world. Some of them can’t even go out. If you’re living in an apartment building in New York City, you can’t even go downstairs in some cases because of elevator restrictions.”
Other teens, she notes, have to work their jobs at Dunkin’ or deliver pizzas because parents have lost their own employment and the family needs income. Still others are caring for neurodiverse siblings while their parents work at essential jobs — some of them on the front lines of the epidemic as nurses and doctors. That can ramp up adolescent anxiety and resentment even more.
For teens willing to sit down and process their complicated emotions, Kelly suggests drawing an iceberg and writing words that reflect their anger below the surface of the water. “Fear, grief, mourning and loss, frustration, feeling powerless, lack of control, invalidation, worry, helplessness, feeling disrespected or tricked, overwhelmed and hurt — there’s a collective grief in society right now, but for high school students, there is a unique collective grief related to loss and separation.
“Goals and achievements they have worked years to attain are now canceled or postponed: graduation, sports, prom, playing with their team in the spring, saying goodbye to friends from high school … and the unknown about starting college in the fall,” she adds.
She also suggests parents help their teens generate a list of the parts of life they can’t control and those they can. “You can’t control covid, the weather, not being in school, what homework teachers are dumping on you right now, and if you spend a lot of energy thinking about these things, you’ll feel even more invalidated and disempowered,” she says. “When you focus on what you can control — what you believe about yourself, the words you use, what you spend your time and energy on — you’ll feel more in control of your emotions and your life, which will ultimately make you feel more positive.”
But what of those teens, like mine, who don’t want to sit down and process on paper? Knowing my daughter loves to feel useful, I’ve helped her think of specific ways she can help our 92-year-old neighbor or her teacher, who stays up until 2 a.m. creating educational videos for students, or the fourth-grader she mentors. She’s baked cookies for her teacher, scrubbed pollen off the neighbor’s car, talked to her mentee on the phone and started digging a hole in the backyard for a koi pond. These things have given her purpose and a sense of self-worth, resulting in a kid who’s kinder to everyone around her — even me.
For my part, I’ve relaxed my restraints on her, allowing her to walk a mile to the market with money and her mask, or up to the forested park near our house. Shelly says that these gestures of trust and independence are critical to a teen’s self-worth right now.
“It’s important to give your kid some control and make them feel empowered,” she says. “Let them choose the family meal at night, the family movie, the game for game night.” And, of course, she says, less screen time and more physical activity can help with mood, too.
With these goals in mind, Nina and her husband built their teens a backyard skateboard ramp. They allow their three sons to invite a friend over once a week to skate provided they all stay outside and are 10 feet apart at all times. Each boy has regular kitchen-cleaning and dog-walking duties, as well. “And they’re allowed to sleep in as much as they want, so that they can have their natural biorhythms,” she says.
The exercise has helped; when he’s not skateboarding, her 16-year-old has been writing songs and making art. Other parents have described for me how teens have channeled negative emotions into making coloring books to send to younger relatives, planting gardens or teaching online dance classes for younger children.
Sallie McCann Vandagrift, an editor and publicist in Eugene, Ore., drives her two sons — ages 14 and 17 — to remote locations for skateboarding. “Sometimes I get really mad at all this and being stuck in my house,” says her younger son, Jesse, “but usually I just get that anger out in my skating.”
He’s been filming his older brother, Isaac, on his skateboard. Together they’ve edited the clips and created an artsy video that’s attracted attention on YouTube. Isaac says the hardest part about social distancing is missing his girlfriend. Instead of getting angry, though, he says he’s focusing on perfecting difficult skateboard tricks.
“This helps me keep my mind off the longevity and negative effects of coronavirus,” he says.
Kelly says some teens are self-starters while others need a nudge from parents. She and her 16-year-old daughter have delivered groceries and takeout food to elderly people in condos nearby, she says, to keep busy.
We’re in a crisis situation, she says, but we’ve also been afforded the opportunity to model positive coping behaviors for our teens, to teach them to handle grief and fear with grace. “This crisis won’t last forever,” she says, “but the lessons you’re teaching your kids right now will last a lifetime.”
Melissa Hart is the author of “Better With Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.” Find her online at melissahart.com.