A mother comforts her upset daughter
A mother comforts her upset daughter
A mother comforts her upset daughter

Staying at Home During COVID-19: How to Help Teens Cope

Featured Expert:

Published on June 16, 2020

Just when teenagers were looking forward to spring and summer, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed or canceled events and limited a lot of their favorite activities, including parties, sports, and time spent in person with friends. No wonder many teenagers are feeling depressed, angry and bored.

These responses are normal, according to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center senior child life specialist Nilu Rahman, who offers suggestions on how parents can help their teens deal with the disappointment of cancellations and postponements and make the most out of their time at home.

Teens Missing Out on Milestones

The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed many graduating high school seniors and other teens of significant rites of passage, such as graduations, “senior week” activities, summer jobs, trips and celebrations.

“Teenagers are grieving,” Rahman says. “They’ve been working hard and looking forward to these events for years, and now they don’t get to attend a prom or walk across the stage for their diplomas.”

According to Rahman, some of these losses are things parents can’t fix. Well-meaning parents may try to help provide some kind of substitute, but their good intentions don’t always pan out. “One mom I know tried to put on a prom for her kid and it sort of backfired, and made the loss feel worse,” Rahman says.

As an alternative, she suggests teenagers look toward the post-pandemic future, and work on a vision of something that will be memorable and fun.

“We're asking teens, ‘When you're finally able to celebrate, what would you want it to look like?’ We’re encouraging them to create collages, vision boards and written plans so they have something they can look forward to, even if it's different from what they originally pictured.”

How Parents Can Help Teens Stuck at Home

“Teens cut off from their normal activities and stuck at home want to feel like they have purpose and meaning,” says Rahman.

Here are some tips to make teens’ stay-at-home days count:

Support new structures

Rahman says some structure can make stay-at-home days more meaningful for teens.

“Don’t just let them flow aimlessly from one hour to the next,” she suggests. “Give them a strategy and help them get everything they can out of their days.” A schedule might include time outside, exercise and participation in social connections while maintaining social distancing, such as a Zoom or FaceTime game night.

Use screen time constructively

Teens love their phones and tablets, and since they’re pretty much a lifeline between teens and their friends, the pandemic may make it difficult to limit screen time.

Rahman says that some social media and online time can be used to launch and complete a project, something with a beginning, middle and end that can give teens a sense of accomplishment.

“Teens can start a book club with friends — read a book together and talk about it,” Rahman says. “They can use social media to try dance challenges, photography projects and other activities, based on their interests.”

Set boundaries and provide purpose

“As a parent, you can impress upon your kids that the pandemic doesn’t mean they can just hang out until further notice,” Rahman says. “Don't be afraid to assign chores and engage teens in the family’s work, such as pitching in to prepare meals.

“And even if you push them to go outside for a walk or a jog, they might grumble at first, but most teens actually appreciate it.”

Discuss the facts about COVID-19 and the pandemic

“Teens have great access to the internet and some of what they’re reading about the coronavirus and the pandemic might be scaring them, even if they don’t say so,” Rahman says. “Parents should make sure kids are not going down rabbit holes and getting confused or frightened by false information.”

She suggests a regular weekly check-in when children and adults can discuss coronavirus information as a family using trustworthy, science-based sources. This can help clear up misunderstandings and give parents a chance to answer teens’ questions honestly and clearly.

Recognize hidden anxieties

Teenagers may act aloof and independent, but behind that facade they might be harboring fears about how COVID-19 might affect them or those they love.

They might be particularly worried about grandparents or parents who have chronic health problems or who work in high-risk professions ranging from health care and other first responders, to grocery and delivery workers. Asking open-ended questions about teens’ concerns may provide them a chance to express their fears.

Teens feel more empowered when they understand that their actions matter. Praising teens for behaviors such as hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing shows them that they can play a part in protecting their own health and that of other people around them.

Monitor teens’ mental health

Parents should keep an eye on teens’ mental health, says Rahman. She notes that in her work with teenagers facing chronic illness, fear of the unknown is the toughest part of that experience. She notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a bit of that fear into everyone’s lives.

“Parents know their children best,” she says, “so if something seems off about their teen, they should trust their instinct and find out what’s going on, especially if the child has a history of depression or anxiety.” Specifically, she recommends parents be on the lookout for:

  • Sleep changes, such as sleeping more or insomnia
  • Eating a lot more or a lot less
  • Signs of self-harm or substance use disorder
  • Acting out more than usual

When parents note behavioral changes such as these, a call to the family doctor or a mental health practitioner might be appropriate.

“Help is available, and psychologists are working with people of all ages through telehealth visits,” Rahman says.

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Scientist carefully insets a pipette into a test tube.

What you need to know from Johns Hopkins Medicine.