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Be careful about making promises to your teen you may not be able to keep in a COVID-19 world

One of the worst aspects of living in a COVID-19 world is the uncertainty that accompanies the pandemic. As the past week or two has shown us, things can change very quickly and just as we seemed to be returning to some degree of normalcy, we suddenly get the rug pulled out from beneath us and we find ourselves right back where we were a year ago …

What has saddened me greatly is receiving messages from young people across the country who are absolutely devastated that something they were looking forward to was suddenly ripped away from them due to a lockdown. Here is one such email:

“My name is Anya and I’ve just turned 16. This weekend I was going to be having my 16th birthday party but it’s just been announced that we’re going to go back into lockdown and we’ve had to cancel it. Everything that was planned has now gone. It was going to be amazing and the first real party my year group has had since COVID. Everyone was looking forward to it because we haven’t been able to have bigger parties for such a long time. I’ve just had the biggest fight with my parents and I can’t stop crying – I know it’s not their fault but they promised. It’s just not fair.”  

I’ve had so many messages similar to this and there must be many young people who feel they are a victim of a ‘broken promise’, whether it be losing a party, a family holiday or even catching up with a mate who lives on the other side of the city, as much of the country finds itself once again in lockdown.

One of the key messages that I’ve been pushing very hard with parents this year is to try not to promise things to your teens that you may not be able to actually deliver. In times of uncertainty it is vital that young people have something to look forward to, i.e., planning birthday parties and making family travel plans provide a valuable ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. It is vital, however, that these come with a caveat explaining that things can change quickly and plans may need to be altered. It doesn’t take much and it won’t make the potential loss any easier but at least you’ve put it out there. It can be as simple as saying the following:

“Of course, if we don’t see any new restrictions the party will go ahead as planned. Just remember that things can change and, if they do, we’ll need to postpone it and make sure it happens at another time.”

“We’re all excited about going on holiday but we all need to remember that if borders close again we may not be able to travel as planned. We’ll just move the holiday to another time. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen but if it does we’re all going to be prepared.” 

It’s also important to be aware that teens are watching how you cope with disappointments. Recent research has identified positive coping skills as one of the key factors found to positively impact on adolescent mental health during the pandemic and subsequent restrictions. An inability to deal with difficult or challenging situations is a risk factor for depression and stress. Some adolescents are naturally resilient with ‘ready-made’ positive coping skills but most need to have exposure to and practice of these to develop them themselves. Observing their parents and how they deal with restrictions impacts the development of a teen’s own coping skills. Remember, they learn so much by watching you …

Another thing found to have a positive impact on teen mental health through COVID is parent-child discussions. Not surprisingly, being connected makes a difference. Connectedness builds resilience and helps them ‘bounce back’ if faced with problems. Maintaining a positive relationship with your teen is so important during a time of such uncertainty. I’ve told this story before but it clearly illustrates the power of connectedness:

Amber approached me after a presentation to a group of Year 10s and was keen to tell me a story about her relationship with her father. Every Saturday they would have ‘coffee club’ – this involved one of them choosing a coffee shop (a different one each week whenever possible) and then going there and sitting and having coffee and cake. Amber would tell her father about her week at school and he told her about his work. Her enthusiasm for ‘coffee club’ was contagious and we had a long discussion about why it was so special. That evening I gave a Parent Night at the same school, finishing off with my slide about the importance of connecting. Afterwards a father came up and wanted to tell me about the special connection activity he and his daughter shared – ‘coffee club’. When I asked him if his daughter was Amber in Year 10 he looked very surprised. “You have no idea how much your daughter loves you,” I told him. “You really have found a way of connecting that will enrich both your lives forever.” He burst into tears!

I tell that story at most schools I go to and it gets a wonderful reaction. Many parents come up and tell me what they do on a regular basis to maintain that important connection. Unfortunately, when we’re in a lockdown situation or under some type of restrictions the activities available are limited, but they’re there if you really look. Walking the dog together, finding a TV program that just the two of you can binge on, playing cards or a board game, agreeing to cook the family meal together once a week – it doesn’t matter what, just try to find something that the two of you can do where you can connect, preferably with no electronic devices or anyone else around.

We live in a world of great uncertainty and that makes it difficult for everyone. Parents need to be careful about making promises to teens that may not be able to be kept because of unexpected lockdowns and changes to restrictions. We are already seeing increasing rates of anxiety and depression amongst our young people, adding loss and disappointment on top of what teens are already experiencing should be avoided. Of course, families should continue to make plans for the future – we all need something to look forward to – but always remembering to add a caveat that things could possibly change can help soften the blow if things do go wrong.

Never forget that your teen learns positive coping skills by watching how you deal with stressful situations. If you are able, be a good role model in this area. Finally, and most importantly, the loss and disappointment that some teens are inevitably going to experience at this time are likely to have far less of an impact on your child’s mental health if you keep talking and are able to maintain a positive connection. It’s worth the effort!

Jones, E., Mitra, A., & Bhuiyan, A. (2021). Impact of COVID-19 on mental health in adolescents: A systematic review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, 2470.

Published: July 2021

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