Lean In and Listen

by Amy Burrows Perkins ’92, Director of Student Services

You have probably seen the latest articles that suggest that the remote learning and safer-at-home experience could be what helps this generation develop resilience, whereas earlier in the year there was a lot more buzz about how this generation insists on instant gratification, uses multiple devices at one time, and has a lot of lessons to learn in life. One thing for sure is that right now all of us are dealing with deferred gratification, disappointments, and missing loved ones. We are all impacted by this. With that said, what’s next?

Parents should try to connect with their teen and see what effects all of these changes to our lives are having on him or her on a daily basis. As a parent or guardian, you want to know how your teen is doing, but that doesn’t mean your teen wants to talk to you. Here are some tips on how to make it happen anyway.

  • Explain that plans keep changing and you want to know how that feels to them. Note that the word “feels” really is different than “thinks.” If you hear, “I think this is hard,” or “it’s fine,” then follow up with an ask about how it feels to go through this. Share how you feel — that it’s ok to be disappointed or frustrated, unmotivated, and even mad. You can even ask how your child’s friends are handling it all, in case it might be easier for them to talk about friends rather than themselves.

  • Talk about today, this week, and what the month ahead may be like. While it may be hard to hear your child say that going to school doesn’t seem worth it and it’s hard to stay motivated, let those thoughts occupy some space, let your teen express them, and validate the feelings. Even as our faculty craft creative lessons and discussions, the dynamic of being in a class with peers has changed and may not feel as collaborative as face-to-face classes. Remote learning is different.

  • Learning online can exacerbate issues with executive functioning that were already present. If your student is suddenly having trouble focusing, following directions, planning and following through, and handling emotions, it could be that online learning is highlighting skills that are still in development. Those skills continue to develop into early adulthood and even beyond. Naming this as normal and helping your teen make sense of why things are suddenly so challenging helps and can decrease self-blame and criticism.

  • Avoid adding stress when responding to your child. Being parents makes us sources of stress to our kids no matter what. For example, while it is tempting to respond to a lack of motivation with a comment about college admissions or cumulative GPA, using that language could suggest that you entered into the conversation to further pressure them, and your teen may not see your honest and sincere desire to listen and understand how they are feeling. If their stress is overwhelming, their go-to coping skill and impulse is often avoidance, even when what provides short-term relief actually digs a hole in the long-term.

  • Keep the conversation going. Foster well-being and focus on all the pillars of their development. For example, make a meal together — there is a nice, required level of activity (which helps avoid awkward eye contact and silence), and there may even be novelty depending on the meal. More importantly, your teenager gets to have a sense of contribution and purpose for the day.

  • Check in on your teen’s amount of screen time. Teens up during the night texting or snapchatting are not prepared for a day that starts at 8:05 a.m. They are exhausted physically and mentally. While we all may be feeling exhausted given the circumstances, as adults we have more coping skills available and we have more aptitude for judgment and healthy decision-making. Gently ask how they think screen time affects their ability to manage their day.

  • Can’t imagine making a meal together because your teen wants to stay in her room all day and night? Maybe there is more going on that you need to be concerned about. Isolation from others beyond needing some personal space can be a sign that your child’s mental health is in jeopardy. Increased irritability, changes in eating and sleeping, and a loss of concentration can be warning signs. The stress of adjusting to all this change can lead to clinical depression and anxiety, and grief can be experienced at clinically significant levels as well. Check in with your provider and discuss your child with them.

We don’t know what our teens are going through until we talk with them. Have these important conversations, and then have them again, and again. And while you are at it, check in with other family members. Be honest with yourself about how you are coping as well.