Navigating COVID-19 with teens and young adults at home
Parenting has never been easy, but today, one thing is clear: parenting has become even more complicated by COVID-19. This is true for parents with children of all ages. Older children are likely to crave more freedom and independence during a time when gathering with others brings risks to their own health, as well as to the health and wellbeing of other family members.
For those parents with children who are in their teenage years, or for parents of young adults who may have returned home because of the pandemic, we have collected some ideas and tips to help you navigate the nuances of granting freedom while also setting expectations.
Consider the “third space” and clearly communication your expectations
The concept of the third space—the time when youth are neither in school nor at home—has changed drastically with COVID-19. Filling after school time for teens, especially before the workday ends for parents, has been a challenge for decades, but the pandemic has increased the complexity, often along socio-economic lines.
Many teenagers have lost access to after-school programs, whether due to unaffordable costs or due to the closure of these programs because of the pandemic. The loss of these programs means that many teens feel like their social fabric has been yanked out from under them. Empathizing, while creating other opportunities for safely connecting with friends and activities in other ways, is critically important.
What can you do to create structures at home to support your teens?
Create (or re-establish) family meetings. If you have teenagers or young adults living in your house, set aside time for a weekly family meeting. This is a time to set family expectations clearly. Schedule the meeting and stick to that schedule.
Plan to come prepared to share a bright spot from the past week, as well as something that caused you concern, or a particularly hard moment that you experienced at home or at work. We call these “a rose” and “a thorn,” but if the rose and thorn analogy is too much of an incentive for an eye roll, asking for “highs and lows” gets to the same goal. This works well for sparking dinner conversations too!
Be prepared to share openly what worries you. Think about how to approach the conversation in a way that will build confidence and positivity for the week ahead. Remember that it is okay to show that—despite what your teenager might think—you are a human being with ideas, hopes, concerns, and strengths. All too often, kids see their parents merely as an extension of themselves. Take this time to talk about what makes you happy, how your kids have made you proud this week, and what is happening in the world or in your home that worries you. Teens and young adults are stressed out too. Make sure you find time to reassure your kids, as well as to guide and lead calmly.
Creating space in your schedule and in your home, as well as using a shared language to connect about feelings and experiences can provide an opportunity for the family to be more prepared for the week ahead, as well as share their challenges from the past week.
Remember to allow your kids to approach the meeting as an equal instead of as child. Trust them to make the right decisions and when they don’t make the appropriate choice, share with them how that affects you, other family members, and their community.
If your adult child lives away from home, at college or in an apartment but plans to come home, set expectations clearly on what quarantine is, what your expectations are for their visit, and what they need to do before they can come home or return to school.
Try to eat meals together as often as possible and plan your meals. If you can’t have dinner together because you work nights, try to have breakfast together, or meet for a snack after school. With young adults and teens alike, encourage them to suggest the location or the meal that you plan to share. Change it up with a picnic in the living room or pack a lunch for a hike. Make it purposeful and allow for play and silliness. While eating healthy snacks is important, allow for flexibility and have an open mind when it comes to feel-good food. A well-timed cookie or treat can make for a fun surprise and lift spirits. All in moderation, of course!
Cook together. Choose one night each week that you and your teenager can meet in the neutral territory of the kitchen and create a meal together. Encourage them to pick out the recipe and allow them to take the lead on planning and organizing the meal. Let them lead everything from the timing of the various dishes to where you plan to share your meal together. If their idea of a family meal consists of having a picnic on the living room floor, then give it a go in order to change up the routine and add some fun into the mix.
Reach out to your county’s designated mental health agency or a local community resource. There are excellent resources for support and social groups, as well as individual and family counseling. Bookmark Vermont 2-1-1—it is an excellent online resource as well as a handy number that connects to a live person who can direct you to the help you need. It’s good to keep handy at all times, not just during a global pandemic.
Hike together. With social isolation, it is even more important to get outside in nature. It clears the mind as well as rejuvenates the spirit and the body. Nature is good medicine. Not sure where to go? Here are some good family hikes right here in our backyards!
Not interested in hiking? Try ice skating (as long as the weather cooperates and the ice is safe), make a snow person, tooling around the woods on cross country skis or snowshoes, go sledding at a nearby hill, or if there’s enough snow, make a snow fort constructed of rainbow-colored ice blocks in the yard to encourage play and imagination.
Still struggling to fill the time and help reduce your teen’s angst? Call your local recreation department or your school’s after school or sports coordinator to learn about the opportunities available in your area during the pandemic. There are art classes, COVID-safe sports, theater groups, even cooking classes both in your town and in the global community online. Don’t be afraid to ask what the program’s COVID protocols are, and how they will be followed. To encourage more after school programming in your community, reach out to Vermont After School for some guidance in how to start the conversation in your town.
Book club. Reading expands the mind and allows you and your teens to travel without leaving the comfort of your home. With your teens and young adults, pick a book to read at the same time. Doing so provides good conversation for the dinner table and beyond. If you have friends or other family members who would enjoy a family book club, set up a monthly Zoom call to share your thoughts and experience reading the shared book.
Set up your “pod” and communicate clearly and earnestly with those parents. If you have trusted friends, family members, and other community connections at the ready, be prepared to have honest, open conversations with them to make sure you’re on the same page regarding the pandemic and when and how it is safe for those of different households to gather. These conversations, as well as setting ground rules—when it’s okay for your teens and young adults to gather and that everyone will wear masks vs. when folks should be isolating—is very important. Not comfortable having some of these more complex conversations? Here are some pointers on how to have that conversation while protecting your friendships and relationships.
It can sometimes be hard to connect with a moody teenager. Create space to talk with your teens face to face, unencumbered by screens and other distractions. Research local and virtual resources to fill their time with meaningful activities, and know that you are not alone, despite the physical distance we have had to intentionally set between our friends and loved ones. Physical distance does not have to mean emotional distance.