Helping Teens Cope with the Stress of Isolation

A common theme among teens (not dealing with a crisis) is the intense levels of stress in their daily lives. It may be surprising to think that teens often experience higher levels of stress than adults, but a study of more than 1,000 teens revealed an average stress score of 5.8 on a 10-point scale—with 3.9 being a healthy level of stress. As a nurse practitioner and youth risk and prevention researcher, I unfortunately continue to validate stress as a major issue among teens, as 11% of over 42,000 teens (1 in every 10) surveyed with our RAAPS tool indicate they have serious problems or worries at home or school. Additionally, 1 in every 4 teens indicate in the last month that they often felt sad or down.

As schools and businesses around the country close, we want to remind professionals that resources are available for helping parents talk with their teens about the additional stress that we are all feeling in the wake of COVID-19 isolation.

Here are 4 techniques to share with parents to improve communication and help ease some of the tension families may be feeling as we all practice social distancing.

  1. Ask permission. Set up the conversation with a strong foundation by getting the go-ahead to proceed: “Can we talk now or would after dinner be better?” The idea of asking permission can seem counterintuitive, but asking permission gives teens a sense of control over the discussion and a feeling of respect that parents are talking with and not at them. When permission is given (even if only with a shrug of the shoulders), teens will be more open to actively participating in the discussion.
  2. Show empathy. A simple reflection that shows empathy goes a long way. “It’s hard to be isolated at home and I know you are committed to protecting yourself and your family.” The choice of words is critical as well as tone. Be sure to use a genuine, neutral tone of voice. Anything too extreme or too overstated may be perceived as sarcastic instead of empathetic.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. These are not easily answered with a “Yes” or “No”. Ask questions that lead teens to think deeper and plan ahead, instead of focusing on the negatives of a situation. Try asking, “What can you do over the next few weeks to keep in touch with your friends?” instead of “Are you OK with what’s going on?”
  4. Listening. This can be the hardest thing for parents to do, especially when they are in protection mode. Actively listen by staying quiet, and using body language that shows you’re listening like eye contact, head nodding or leaning in toward the person speaking.

Here’s a sample conversation putting it all together:

Can we talk for a few minutes? Wait for your teen to respond. It can be really hard to be stuck at home and have to cancel plans with your friends. You care about being safe and keeping your friends safe. Wait for your teen to respond. How can you still feel connected with your friends while everyone has to stay at home? Listen and then offer some solutions of your own. Those are good ideas. What do you think about planning a movie night where you all watch the same movie at the same time? Maybe you can plan breaks to video chat during or after? End by asking Thinking about all of the ideas we just came up with, what will you talk with your friends about doing?

These strategies take practice and can be used in any situation to help parents foster a strong relationship with their teens that continues into adulthood. For more tips on talking with teens about stress, check out our parent handout.

For up-to-date information on COVID-19 and how you can protect your family, visit the CDC’s website: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

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