How to help teens cope in a global pandemic

Teens are struggling during the pandemic, with social isolation, loss and financial woes on top of what’s already a tumultuous time in their young lives. Parents worry it will only get worse as holiday celebrations are muted or even canceled in light of the mounting Covid-19 death toll and hospitalizations.

CNN talked to pediatrician and teen health specialist Dr. Anisha Abraham, the author of “Raising Global Teens: A Practical Handbook for Parenting in the 21st Century,” to get her advice for raising teens in a pandemic. Abraham, who is on the faculty at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC, and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is the parent of two boys, ages 10 and 12. This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.
CNN: How can we help teens cope during a worsening pandemic?
Dr. Anisha Abraham: Many teens feel isolated from friends and family, frustrated about the loss of regular school and activities, and saddened by the loss of milestones. Quite a few tell me that they are stressed, anxious and even depressed. It’s important to have regular conversations with teens about how they are handling the pandemic. Remember to validate the emotions that they may be experiencing.
    Dr. Alisha Abraham, author of "Raising Global Teens: A Practical Handbook for Parenting in the 21st Century," said conversations with your teen create connections that are "so protective against mental health issues."

    Teens learn from adults as to how to react to new challenges. That means parents should model positive ways to stay well and manage uncertainty, including exercising regularly, eating healthy foods to boost immunity, staying connected with loved ones and being kind to others regardless of their background or appearance. Think of ways to give back to your community, for example by helping an elderly neighbor or donating items to a food bank.
    Focus on supporting your teen’s unique strengths. One teen I know spends time each day drawing elaborate cartoon strips. Another is working on TikTok videos for kids about the Covid-19 vaccine. By developing their strengths, we help teens build self-confidence and the ability to handle life’s challenges.
    CNN: What can parents do to help our teens?
    Abraham: Maintaining a routine can give kids a sense of stability. In our house, we have a rough schedule that includes online school hours, mealtimes, exercise, small chores and free time. We have had our share of drama, but it does provide a framework. For older teens, consider their need for independence and creating their own path for learning, but also encourage them to get physical activity and break large assignments into smaller ones.
    This is a time to decrease expectations. Your teen will not be working at the same pace or intensity as a regular school day. Now is the time to stress a little less over homework assignments and piano practice.
    We need to make sure we praise teens when they do things right. If your teen helps their sibling or does something else positive, give them credit.
    Ultimately, we need to prioritize our teens’ well-being and believe in them unconditionally.
    CNN: What do we teach them to get through this crisis?
    Abraham: I tell parents and teens that the biggest predictor of success in life is not having top grades, getting into the best university or having the perfect job. Rather, it’s the ability to get back on their feet when they experience a setback or disappointment. This concept of resilience is something that teens can build over time. Right now is the time for our teens to problem solve and come up with creative solutions to the obstacles they may face.
    CNN: How do we even talk to sullen teens who don’t want to talk to us?
    Abraham: That can be tough. Remember though that part of adolescence is developing your own identity. It’s very normal for teens to experience some ups and downs in their emotions, to pull away and spend more time alone or with peers. To break the ice, talk to teens when you are doing something in parallel, for example when you are walking or driving together. I find that late at night, when it’s dark in my kids’ rooms and they cannot see my eyes, that I get the most open discussions.
    Asking teens about their peers and friends is a good way to start a conversation. And less can be more. A good rule of thumb is to say half of what we intend to say. Keep the conversations short and to the point. Sometimes our kids want us to be there for them but to say nothing, a bit like houseplants!
    CNN: How can we connect heading into the holidays?
    Abraham: Consider having regular family meals or activities — making homemade holiday gifts, playing charades or taking hikes in nature. Make a list of the tasks they need to complete during the holidays and ask them to give input on what they want to take ownership of to give them a sense of control.
    Encourage them to think about ways to celebrate with the people who are around them. Better yet, ask them to take charge of an event like organizing a formal dress-up dinner party or having a crazy scavenger hunt.
    Finally, encourage the use of technology such as Zoom, WhatsApp and Skype to help teens stay in touch with classmates, friends and family. Worried about their online use? Be aware of the content they are viewing, ensure that they have good connections with family members and friends, and know your child’s abilities when it comes to disengaging from digital media use.
    CNN: What if we’ve gotten sick or lost someone from Covid-19? We can’t just say everything’s going to be all right.
    Abraham: If you have lost someone, make sure you and your family are taking care of your physical and emotional needs. Also, encourage your teens to ask questions and provide accurate information about what occurred. Finally, acknowledge your teen’s grief and make time to remember the person who died. Ask your teens what you can do to help support them getting through this time.
    CNN: Given a vaccine is on the way, how to do we teach our teens patience?
    Abraham: Ask teens to express the emotions they are feeling right now about not being able to attend school or spend time with friends. Encourage them to imagine what it would be like in a few months to a year from now with a vaccine and the use of good public health measures. Help them to realize that by holding on for just a bit longer, we can pave the way for more normal routines by next winter.
    Also remind them that they have the responsibility to protect themselves and others like their grandparents and elderly neighbors by practicing proper handwashing, wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing. Even infected teens who don’t show any symptoms can still transmit the virus to others. Talk to them about the risks of meeting friends to hang out.
    Ultimately our obligation as parents and caregivers is to teach social behavior and to keep our teens and our community healthy.
    CNN: What are the signs that our teens might have more serious problems requiring intervention?
    Abraham: For some teens, feeling frustrated, angry or anxious may be a natural part of the grieving process. However, if there are significant changes in eating or sleeping habits, persistent irritability or sadness, or the need for constant reassurance, these may be signs that your teen is struggling and needs support. Other indications include problems with focus and concentration, a loss of interest in usual activities or schoolwork, or use of drugs and alcohol.
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      Try talking to your teen about their fears or get another adult or mentor involved. If that does not help, it may be time to reach out to your health provider or a counselor. Many are now providing virtual consults. If there is any reference to dying or suicide, please contact your local suicide hotline or your health provider right away.
      By connecting with your teens, validating their feelings and building on their resilience, we can get through these challenging times with humor and grace.

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