BWC in the News: Belmont Citizen-Herald – Being a teen isn’t easy. Coronavirus has made it harder
This article originally appeared in the Belmont Citizen-Herald on April 17, 2020 and features Belmont Wellness Coalition’s Lisa Gibalerio.
Chenery seventh-grader Sophia Edrington Martinez was excited to play a lead role in the Chenery spring musical, “High School Musical, Jr.” and had a solo in an a capella concert March 21. Both performances were cancelled. She was also going to be a student advisor at her summer camp. Cancelled. She misses school and the way her days were structured, although she admits she likes starting her day later.
For nearly six weeks, the lives of many teens throughout America have significantly changed. Before COVID-19, most teens, Monday through Friday, and even on the weekends, typically had structure and a schedule they followed. A typical teen’s day may have looked like this: Wake up early in the morning, go to school, go to practice after school for sports or music, do homework, go to bed and start over the next day. Other days they may have met up with friends in Belmont Center for Starbucks, Rancatore’s or Bruegger’s, or hung out at one of the many playgrounds and fields around town.
Now, they are confined to their homes with their parents and siblings. Their schedules and habits may be completely thrown off. Parents may feel compelled to control their teens more which may cause additional stress for everyone in the home.
Sophia’s mother, April Edrington, said it has been difficult trying to keep things structured and light. Every day has been different.
“I worry about how she’s feeling. I try to find different ways of encouraging her to talk about what she thinks and feels about all of this,” said Edrington, adding, “It’s hard to know what news and information to share and what to shield her from.”
She recently had to break the news to Sophia about a family friend who passed away due to COVID-19, which was difficult.
“I want to be honest with her, but I don’t want to add to the trauma that all of this causes already. It’s impossible to know the right answer,” said Edrington.
Dr. Kathryn Boger, director of the McLean Anxiety Master Program at McLean Hospital and the McLean School Consultation Service, said it is important to recognize that the most essential developmental tasks of adolescence, separation and individuation, are now being disrupted.
Teach life skills
Boger advises parents to support their teens by allowing them to maintain their social ties virtually and to think about ways to increase their autonomy in the home.
“Use this opportunity to help them gain independence with regards to various life skills such as doing laundry and cooking,” said Boger.
These are things they will need to accomplish when they are independent that they are usually too busy with academics and extracurriculars to do on their own and often parents do for them, she said. Now that there is a pause on life, this is the opportunity for parents to provide scaffolding and support while empowering teens to learn these tasks, she said.
As an example, Boger said, instead of saying, “From now on, you’re in charge of the laundry,” have your teen observe you do laundry or cook, walk them through the steps and then have them do it on their own while you observe.
“Tolerate inevitable mistakes. Don’t jump in and take over when the results are messy or flawed,” said Boger.
Validating how teens feel is another important way Boger said parents can help teens cope while they are stuck at home during this crisis.
“Teens are primed to be focused on themselves and their peer group. Their activities and rights of passage are now being disrupted. They are missing events such as plays and performances, sports competitions, graduations, and in-person time with friends or romantic partners,” she said.
“Validate whatever emotions they are having. Show them you get that it’s really hard for them right now. Don’t make assumptions about their emotional reactions. Different people suffer in different ways. This is true for teens as well,” said Boger.
Some teens may respond to the current situation by feeling more anxious, some may be less anxious overall as demands of typical life have decreased, and many will experience fluctuating emotions.
“One moment they may feel completely in despair, sad and angry because they can’t see a friend in person. An hour later, they may be in a good place and feeling happy because they get to play more video games,” said Boger.
It’s also important for parents to listen when teens want to talk to them.
“If they feel like talking, capitalize on it. Put down your own device. Look them in the eye and listen. Validate what they are saying. Avoid the urge to jump in and problem solve,” she said.
She knows it’s tempting to try to fix their problems, but a lot of what’s happening now is not fixable. Letting them know you hear them can carry a lot of weight.
“The most important thing parents can do is be there and be ready to listen,” said Boger.
Negotiables and non-negotiables
Parents need to determine what is non-negotiable and what is negotiable with their teens, such as screen time and a time when everything is unplugged for the night.
It’s normal for there to be a struggle for control, but parents need to control the media teens consume to some degree, especially when it comes to coronavirus posts, which can bombard them with scary stories and images, she said.
Create structure and model good behavior
Lisa Gibalerio, mother Christina Cunningham, a junior at Belmont High School, prevention specialist for Wayside Youth and Family Support and director of the Belmont Wellness Coalition, encourages parents to model the behaviors they would like to see in their teens.
“If you’d like to see them walking every day, be sure you are walking every day. If you’d like them to put down the phone and play a board game, you should do the same,” she said.
Boger said parents should try to create a flexible, consistent schedule for their teens such as having regular times for waking up, eating meals and bedtime to frame the day.
The key is flexibility and teamwork. “Enlist teens to help create the schedule,” she said.
Teens can brainstorm with parents to figure out how they can get in the things they need to do academically as well as build in time for exercising and communicating with friends virtually, said Boger.
Gibalerio also suggests making certain days for specific activities for families to participate in together, such as game night.
Fear of the unknown
Gibalerio said her greatest challenge as a parent during the coronavirus pandemic is the fear of the unknown and the uncertainty of the future. She worries children will go back to school and at some point, there will be a second wave of COVID-19.
“My biggest worry is this isn’t going to be over until there is a vaccine. We are in this for the long haul. It’s no longer a sprint. Now, it’s a marathon,” she said.
Boger said it’s reasonable to acknowledge when you don’t have the answers rather than provide a false sense of security.
Edrington said she thinks many parents are worrying about balancing work, supporting online learning, becoming armchair counselors, preparing every meal and trying to create a semblance of normalcy.
“And it’s hard with so much blatant uncertainty in our lives,” she said.
Life after coronavirus
Gibalerio thinks her daughter and most teens will bounce back after the coronavirus crisis, provided they have the support from their families, school and the community.
Edrington hopes her daughter will look back on this time and be able to see that she learned to adapt and be compassionate with herself and those around her.
She has two jars in the house with colorful note paper. One is the bucket list of what they hope to do after the coronavirus crisis is over. The other jar is for complaints. “As of April 16, the bucket list jar has more in it than the complaints jar, though that may not last,” she said.