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Protecting Your Teen's Mental Health During Covid

While working remotely, distractions abound. Cell phones ping and ring. Zoom screens demand our attention. In the background, the sounds of crying children and barking dogs are commonplace.

Yet many of my clients tell me that it’s the stuff we can’t see or hear that’s really distracting them. Although many working women and men complained mightily about their pre-Covid rush-hour commute, there were advantages to physically going to work. Now, we don’t just not go to work, we can’t leave it behind, either.

One executive, Kris, has a too-clear view of family mayhem through the glass French doors of a tiny room in her home, which is now her office. Her teenaged sons constantly taunt each other. Tara, her hormonal 13-year-old daughter, has near-daily meltdowns. Recently, Tara collapsed in tears after a friend described, in a midday phone call, eating a decadent, sugary cereal. Through sobs, Tara said she wanted that cereal, too. Recognizing that the cereal wasn’t the real issue, Kris dropped her deadline project to talk with her daughter. “My life’s a mess.” Tara said. “I’m stuck at home. I miss my friends.”

Kris’s family – and her kids’ emotional outbursts –are typical during Covid. Millions of teens, who are supposed to be developing autonomy from their parents, and building social skills, are suffering from the sudden isolation from peers.

Yes, many kids are resilient. Still, there’s plenty of reason for caution and concern. Teens like adults often self-medicate emotional discomfort with alcohol and other drugs. And even before the pandemic suicide was the second cause of death among teens.

So parents, exhausted and anxious themselves, have to dig deep and step up. Science proves that family dynamics are a key predictor of kids’ future physical and mental health – in or out of a pandemic.

Dr. Kevin Hill, Director of the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston says, “For parents in this pandemic, it’s all hands on deck.”

My friend Laura, mother of three, reminds herself daily that she has to rise above her own feelings of stress and uncertainty to see and hear her kids’ perspectives.

Laura knows that to be emotionally present, requires taking care of herself, too. Morning runs help quiet her mind. Then, she’s more able to fully engage.

Here are basic communication tips and strategies to help you empathize and connect with your children:

Listen, listen, listen It’s natural to want to fix your child’s problem. Often, children just want to vent – to be heard. Remember: “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

Avoid being judgmental Criticizing is a sure-fire way to shut kids down.

Be curious Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that elicit “yes” or “no.” When you tune in and show kids that you care, they’re more likely to bring you their problems and concerns.

Affirm their feelings You can say, “This is really hard. Is there any way I can help?”

Be a good role model Whether we handle our own stress and anxiety well or not so well, we are role models for our kids. For good or bad, they learn by what we do more than what we say.

Check out these Words Can Work e-books I wrote to help parents, and other caring adults, talk with kids about alcohol and other drugs. 

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