8 Ways to Help Teens Cope with Social Distancing Blues

April 07, 2020 11:00 AM

Social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic could be particularly challenging for adolescents and teens who thrive on social connections and may be missing events like prom and graduation.

Student on laptop at home on couch

Editor’s note: Information on the COVID-19 crisis is constantly changing. For the latest numbers and updates, keep checking the CDC’s website. For the most up-to-date information from Michigan Medicine, visit the hospital's Coronavirus (COVID-19) webpage

For the full list of COVID-19 related articles from the blogs, visit our COVID-19 coverage page.

As the school year abruptly comes to a halt for teenagers around the country, many may be mourning the loss of missed milestones.

It means no end-of-year goodbyes or celebrations with classmates and teachers. No prom. No last debut in a school musical or baseball game.

And for high school seniors, the pandemic may dash hopes of walking across the stage at graduation.

Many families are experiencing social distancing blues – but it may be a particularly difficult transition for adolescents and teens who are redefining social lives and foregoing rites of passage.

“We all remember how important our friends were when we were 14, 15 and 16. Those shared experiences with peers were memorable parts of growing up,” says Terrill Bravender, M.D., M.P.H. chief of adolescent medicine at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

“This is a stage in life when social connections and experiences are a healthy and critical part of development. Not being able to see friends, go to school events, play sports, all of this can cause sadness and major disappointment.”

Parents may struggle with the best way to manage teens’ reactions to the premature ending to the school year. Bravender offers his top advice for older kids coping with the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine.

1. Explore alternative celebrations - for now

Teens had possibly been looking forward to big trips, sweet 16 parties, a musical or theater performance or sport event. And of course there are the quintessential traditions like senior prom, grad night and graduation.

While some events may be postponed or rescheduled, others may be canceled altogether. Although nothing may completely replace them, a growing number of virtual events offer ways to celebrate in a less traditional format. From video conference dance parties in place of prom to FaceTime hang outs and virtual concerts, teens are connecting in alternative ways.

Parents shouldn’t force these ideas on their kids but be supportive in helping them explore virtual substitutes perhaps in partnership with organizations or their school.

“Any opportunity to find community in a virtual space is valuable,” Bravender says. “The good news is that young people are already very comfortable in the virtual world through social media, so this won’t feel as foreign to them as it may feel for their families.

“Also remind them that this is a temporary situation and there will be opportunities to celebrate and mark these occasions in person later with friends and family,” he adds.

2. Be empathetic

Parents may be tempted to remind their kids that they are lucky to be healthy during a worldwide pandemic. And that in the big picture, missing a dance isn’t such a big deal.

But resist saying those things.

“Anything that minimizes what teens are feeling is not helpful,” Bravender says. “I always tell my patients that feelings don’t have to make sense or be right or wrong. They just are. You just don’t want them to overwhelm you.”

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Acknowledge their experience and validate that sadness or frustration by saying things like ‘that must feel awful” or “I can see why that would make you upset.”

“The key is for parents to provide empathetic listening for their teens, and also emphasize that we are all in this together,” Bravender says.

3. Stick to a school schedule

Create boundaries by establishing what the “school day hours” are. Maybe it starts at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. but it should be consistent to keep some sense of normalcy and predictability.

Bravender recommends building in a break, such as lunch time, when teens can check in with friends by phone, video chat, social media or other platforms.

“One of the most important things to do in the midst of the pandemic is to create structure in the day,” he says. “If kids have online school responsibilities, they should get up in the morning, and be connected to school during those set hours.”

“And after the school day is done, then it’s done for the whole day and kids can enjoy more free time.”

And don’t forget to maintain decent bedtimes too. “The last thing you want is for kids to stay up all night and sleep all day,” he says. “That’s a recipe for procrastination, not getting any work done and really disrupting life.” 

4. Embrace technology

Technology rules shouldn’t completely go out the window – parents should still be mindful of what platforms their children are using and to make sure they are being safe.

But it’s OK to somewhat relax on the rules since kids will now rely on technology daily and for longer periods for school. And this might be a time when it’s OK for teens to spend a little more time on social media and their phones to stay in touch with peers.

"Anything that minimizes what teens are feeling is not helpful … The key is for parents to provide empathetic listening for their teens, and also emphasize that we are all in this together."
Terrill Bravender, M.D., M.P.H

“Connectivity with friends is important and being empathetic to our kids’ distress about not being able to see friends in person can go a long way,” Bravender says.

5. But also unplug

For all age groups, and especially adolescents and teens, 30-60 minutes a day of outside time is valuable to their physical and mental health, Bravender says. This could include taking a walk, shooting hoops in the driveway or going to a nature area. The least technology involved the better.

“Parents should help teens build outdoor times into their day while maintaining social distance,” Bravender says. “Outside activity helps regulate day and night cycles and reset your brain.”

With many parents working from home during quarantine, families should also carve out unplugged times together. Boundaries between work and family life may get blurred when home is also a work and school environment.

“There’s great value of in having dinner together as a family,” Bravender says. “After a day of working from home and doing online school or connecting with friends on social media, dinner time is when everyone can put that aside and just connect with each other.”

6. Follow teens’ lead on shared activities

Are you missing a family vacation your kids had looked forward to or not getting to do usual favorite activities? Ask your kids for ideas on what the family can enjoy together.

This could involve old fashioned board games, family movie nights or even video games or nerf gun fights.

“If your teen initiates or suggests an idea for a shared family activity, don’t shoot it down. Parents should jump at the chance and just go with it,” Bravender says. “Even if they want you to listen to a new song you think sounds horrible, keep an open mind. Meet the teen where they are.

“In many ways slowing down life this way brings new opportunities to learn more about your children during their teenage years when some parents may feel more disconnected from their kids.”

Like Podcasts? Add the Michigan Medicine News Break to your Alexa-enabled device or subscribe for daily updates on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

7. Watch for signs of depression

It can be hard to tell the difference between sadness and depression – especially for teens who may already experience normal ups and downs, Bravender says. But parents should keep an eye out for red flags that their teen’s blues are symptoms of depression.

If a teen wants to be alone in his room for a couple of days, that may not be worrisome. But if depressive symptoms persist for more than one or two weeks, that may be time to get help, Bravender says.

“Spending long stretches alone or being more moody than usual could be part of how they’re coping with this new situation,” Bravender says. “You should acknowledge to them that this is normal and understandable.

“But if they’re sleeping all day or you’re going weeks without seeing them, you should dig deeper.”

Many therapists and providers are offering virtual visits during the COVID-19 outbreak, and that may be a resource for parents to consider if they’re worried, Bravender says.

See more advice on spotting depressive or suicide warning signs here.

8. Tap into their altruistic nature

While every child is different, it might be meaningful to show them how they can help others during the pandemic. If they’re 17 or older, you can donate blood together. Or maybe it’s picking up groceries for an older neighbor to drop off on their porch or supporting a local business by buying gift cards to use later.

Simply talking about the why behind all of these measures may be helpful too.

“Teenagers sometimes have this reputation of being self-centered or not caring about other people, but in reality they are often the most altruistic of any of us,” Bravender says. “When you explain that by distancing ourselves from others we are helping to protect the population as whole – and especially the most vulnerable among us – that message will likely resonate.”

“Just be very clear that we are all in this together. Even if we don’t feel sick right now, we are doing this to protect others and those we love.”

To learn more about education and outreach options, visit the U-M Depression Center homepage.