This column is two in a series providing information and suggestions about parenting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapists, authors and child experts Jim Wellborn, Ph.D. and Stacy Jagger, LMFT, RPT-S will be helping parents explain to their kids what is happening as well as how to deal with the various challenges of having kids home for the next month or more. They will be giving you suggestions and advice about setting up schedules, dealing with bored and irritable kids, continuing their schoolwork from home, keeping them occupied, maintaining friendships and social connections, managing and monitoring screen time and taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.
What about Teens?
It is much easier to talk to teens about important or difficult topics. While many of the main points are the same, teens will benefit from real explanations and the actual facts. But they are still just teenagers (however infuriatingly smug they are about all the “facts” they have gathered on their endless time spent on the internet). Here are some selective topics
Exposure to news. Rather than limit exposure to news, talk about where they are getting their news and how they can trust it. Consider approaching the gathering of facts as a joint venture with your teen. There is value in searching the internet together to get information about the virus and the effects of trying to manage the outbreak. This provides an opportunity for parent-child bonding, constructive arguing and helping your kid learn how to be more critical of things they get from the internet.
Talk about it. Find out what they think before you tell them what they should think. Have them put those newly developing analytical abilities to work. It is useful to know what your teenage kid is thinking so you know whether or not there are things you need to address with them.
Words and phrases. The use of provocative and inflammatory language about the virus and the necessary community response provides an opportunity for you to talk to your kid about how important language is for how you think (and what you consider possible) as well as how you influence others. Use the words and phrases mentioned in talking to kids to see how your teen understands the importance of language in shaping our thought and the world.
Accuracy and positivity. A fundamental problem with the internet is that it seems to breed cynicism, pessimism and negativity. And then there are all those fun and entertaining movies and shows about apocalyptic events. This outbreak of the virus can cause teens to see the future as bleak and hopeless, especially since the typical indicators of forward movement (i.e., school, athletics, religious gatherings, weekdays/weekends, etc.) have all been disrupted. While there is always value in helping your teen have a more optimistic and positive outlook, it will be particularly important when so much of the news is filled with fear and catastrophes (because there are catastrophes happening and fear is reasonable). So, be sure to help your teen see the positive along with the negative.
Character. Adolescence is the age of character development. You have been laying the groundwork throughout childhood but it is in the teen years that your kids will begin to practice how they will apply morals and ethics in decision making. While there is always suffering in the world and many of us have gone through hard times, we have not been faced with a country-wide, society disrupting event in our lifetime. The serious, worrisome things Americans have experienced have not required us to make serious sacrifices for the benefit of each other. It is happening now. This is the time to drive home the importance of being a decent human being. This is the time to require your kid to sacrifice their comfort and personal interests for the sake of others. This is a time when considering others by kindness, generosity, compassion and self-sacrifice is for a purpose greater then your own personal development. Times like these are what character and morals and ethics and civil behavior are for. Drill down on this. Make regular time, daily time, to reflect and consider what your family can do for others even when you are frightened that you might be a family in need.
The main points. Your teen is old enough to recognize the deeper implications of what is going on in the world. That means reassuring them about danger and risk is more difficult. Discussions about the virus and the effects of the shutdown as the months pass will be worrisome or even terrifying to your kid, especially since they don’t have the life perspective of how things can look bad but work out with the passage of time. Be sure to provide a lot of perspective and genuine reassurance. Help them appreciate that there is a long view (something they are only just developing the cognitive capacity for). This remarkable situation requires them to do things because you know it is important (but isn’t obvious) like washing your hands and social isolation.
They will need help understanding that how each person behaves acts has a potentially profound effect on people living and dying. And they have to do it because they know it rather than that you can see the effects immediately. This challenge sets the stage in a much more dramatic way for what it will take for them to have a productive and happy adulthood. It’s more than they are ready for. They will need to step up to the challenge.
Helping your kid understand COVID-19 is just the beginning of all you will be doing to weather this storm. We will be writing what we hope will be helpful suggestions about other challenges parents are facing during the shut down in future columns. Remember, we can only really survive by looking out for each other. Help your children be kind, generous and safe.
James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.
Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting. Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.
Stacy Jagger, LMFT, RPT-S
Stacy Jagger is a mother of four and a therapist to many. She is on a mission to restore wonder to childhood, connection to families, and intimacy to relationships. She is the architect of the 30 Day Blackout, a break from technology designed to bring parents and children closer together and unleash the natural creativity in all of us. A musician at heart, she designed Music with Mommie, a parent-child bonding class that utilizes instruments and play to facilitate connection. Stacy has spent the last several years of her career building Music City Family Therapy, her practice in Brentwood, Tennessee. She lives on a small farm outside the city with her husband of twenty years, a pony named Mister Rogers, a few dozen chickens and a gaggle of ducks.