2020 has been a difficult year for everyone. We have had our lives and our routines altered significantly. Stress is a natural result of these change, but the massive changes of 2020 have caused unprecedented stress on families, especially those with teenagers. COVID’s impact in each community will likely have long-term ramifications on both our mental health and our “new normal” in regard to routine, safety protocols and community standards.
Check-in and Listen
Teens are resilient and can cope well with most challenges, but stressors affect all students differently. Parents should be checking-in with their student, and even more so during stressful times. Ask them how they are doing and what they need help with. You can also encourage them to use whatever coping skills work for them.
How You Check-in Matters
The way you check-in with your student will make a difference in how your teen responds to stress. Unfortunately, when parents see that their child is stressed, many times they respond with helicopter parenting that can makes things worse for their student. If the parent jumps in too quickly to make suggestions or criticizes the students’ strategy for dealing with stress, the result can be that the teen believes their parent doesn’t think they can cope.
So, what SHOULD the parent say? You might try, “Hey, I can see that you have a lot going on, how are you coping?” Then, the most important part – LISTEN to how they respond. Let their response guide your next actions. If they admit that they are really stressed, your response might be, “Tell me what you think you can do to make things better.” If the answer is the typical teenager’s response of, “I don’t know.” Ask them to think about it and you will talk to them later tonight or tomorrow. Let them know that you will be there for them as they figure out what works best for them.
“Work with your teen to agree on a set time each night that the cell phone will be turned off. Aim for stopping all screen time one hour prior to bedtime to increase productive sleep habits. ”
Encourage Them to Take Care of Their Physical and Mental Health
A boost to your teens overall health comes from a structured schedule that includes, sleep, healthy eating, a time for exercise and downtime. The amount of sleep your student gets on a regular basis will make a big difference in how well they cope with stress. Eight to ten hours is needed for the average teenager. Sleep is what recharges our body, but it also solidifies the long-term learning process of what your child has been studying and learning during the day. Sleep deprivation can occur within just a few days - - read test weeks - - and will have a negative impact on learning, memory recall, attention-span and attitude. Another thing that can negatively impact their sleep is screen time, including their cell phone. Work with your teen to agree on a set time each night that the cell phone will be turned off. Aim for stopping all screen time one hour prior to bedtime to increase productive sleep habits. In addition, a balanced diet is important, but equally impactful is setting aside time to eat together with your teen. Eating meals together several times a week can make a huge difference in their mental health - - and yours.
Use a Calendar to Create a Routine
Downtime and relaxation can include reading, listening to music, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends. A change of scenery will help them avoid feeling burned out and can help maintain focus. So, if you notice that your student has been studying for several hours, encourage them to take a break and get out and do something fun. Especially true for busy schedules, calendaring time for meals, exercise and relaxation is a must. Whether it’s the gym, a bike ride, or skateboarding, encourage them to be involved in activities with their friends that turn exercise into quality time. If they are stuck at home, help them find a fun online workout or encourage them to take the dog for a walk to get the blood pumping. The exercise releases endorphins, which can improve concentration and mental health. In addition, just spending time with their friends will incite positive energy and a sense of hopefulness that is needed to confront difficult and stressful situations.
Help Them Find Ways to Maintain Healthy Connections, Safely, and In-Person, When Possible
Feeling connected to friends is key component to mental health, especially during stressful times. Keeping in touch with friends online and via text is both popular and necessary during these continued outbreaks of Covid-19, but when it’s possible, encourage then to have safe, in-person connections, with family and friends. Open-air activities are safer than enclosed areas, so outside activities are good and safe options for your teen to take a break from studying.
Balance is Important
It is also important to talk with your teen about a balance of fun and serious conversations in their relationships with friends. Constantly talking only about problems can make your teen feel worse and less able to cope. While your teen may want to be a source of support for friends going through difficult times, you need to pay attention to the toll it may be taking on their own health. Again, asking questions and listening to their answers will help you know how best to support your teen.
Help Them Understand How Their Brain Works
Learning the right study habits for long-term memory retention will help relieve stress as your student prepares for school exams, like end of six weeks and semester exams, and standardized testing, including the PSAT, SAT and ACT. Most teens use repetition to memorize answers for tests, but that method for studying is the least effective for long-term retention of information. While it may seem harder at first, learning ACTIVE studying habits will better prepare your students for exams and testing. Active studying uses different parts of the brain and information is more likely to be retained long-term. Some active studying techniques include making up their own test questions, creating concept maps, linking information to topics and being able to explain the different topics to you using different words from their notes or the textbook.
Be Proactive to Avoid Technical Issues During Online Testing
Having computer issues during a test can be one of the MOST stressful things for your student. You can support them by helping them schedule the test, when possible, at a time of day when the Internet is less busy. Avoid taking a test during high traffic times of the day, the busiest being weekdays from 6 – 9 p.m. Another way to assist is to ask other family members to avoid streaming services like Hulu, Netflix or Zoom, which can slow down the connection, while your teen is testing. Also avoid having them test during a storm when the WIFI can be very unstable.
Help Them Create a Quiet, Distraction-Free Zone for Test Taking
Another practical way to help is to create a distraction-free zone for your teen. This area should be set up with minimal to no distractions and is best if set up in a room where the door can be closed. Their phone should also be in a different room during the exam. If they need it to be quiet, try using earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. Finally, alert other family members that this is a testing zone and place a “do not disturb – testing” sign on the door.
Watch for Warning Signs
Depression in teens is much higher than in years past. With Covid-19 still lingering and even surging in some communities, a return to “the way things were before” seems unforeseeable to some. This may have some teens feeling out of control, uncertain about their own future and emotional. Some things you can watch for include drastic changes in behavior such as weight, eating and sleeping patterns, and attitude. Another sign is avoiding friends and family, getting upset over small insignificant things, and making exaggerated statements like “there’s no point….”, “this is the worst year ever….”, “I just don’t care anymore…”
During these stressful times, your teenager will look to you to model a hopeful attitude and successful coping strategies. You may need to remind them that if they don’t understand everything that’s happening around them, it’s OK. They don’t have to have everything figured out right now. Explain that you don’t understand everything either, but you will be there with them and you can figure it out together. Refocus your teen by helping them see opportunities that arise from challenges. This can include learning what they like and what they don’t like, learning their strengths and weaknesses, and learning what works for them for organizing their life and for coping with the stresses that life can throw at them.
If you have tried a combination of techniques and your teen still seems stuck in a cycle of negativity or has a preoccupation with death or if they are expressing how difficult it is to be alive, please seek out a mental health professional. You know your teen better than anyone, if you have a gut feeling that things are beyond what you can help them with, trust that feeling and seek professional help. The National Helpline number for Substance Abuse and Mental Health is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).