Parents and children are facing major life disruptions with the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). School closures, social distancing, it’s a lot to take in and it’s difficult for everyone in the family. We sat down with expert adolescent psychologist, best-selling author, monthly New York Times columnist and mother of two Dr. Lisa Damour to learn more about how families can support each other and make the most of this new (temporary) normal.
UNICEF: How can teenagers and parents take care of their mental health during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak?
Dr. Damour: The first thing that parents can do is actually to normalize the fact that they [teenagers] are feeling anxious. Many teenagers have the misunderstanding that anxiety is always a sign of mental illness when in fact, psychologists have long recognized that anxiety is a normal and healthy function that alerts us to threats and helps us take measures to protect ourselves. So it’s very helpful for teenagers if you say, “You’re having the right reaction. Some anxiety right now makes sense, you’re supposed to feel that way. And that anxiety is going to help you make the decisions that you need to be making right now.” Practicing social distancing, washing your hands often and not touching your face — your anxiety will help you do what needs to be done right now, so that you can feel better. So that’s one thing we can do.
Another thing we can do is actually help them look outward. Say to them, “Listen, I know you’re feeling really anxious about catching coronavirus, but part of why we’re asking you to do all these things — to wash your face, to stay close to home — is that that’s also how we take care of members of our community. We think about the people around us.”
And then give them further things to do that may be of help: perhaps dropping off food to people in need or going shopping for them or figuring out what areas of our community need support and doing things to support the people around them while maintaining social distance. Finding ways to care for others will help young people feel better themselves.
And then the third thing to help with anxiety is to help young people find distractions. What psychologists know is that when we are under chronically difficult conditions — and this is certainly a chronically difficult condition that’s going to go on for a while — it’s very helpful to divide the problem into two categories: things I can do something about, and then things I can do nothing about. There’s going to be a lot in that second category right now, where kids are going to have to live with a pretty difficult situation for a while.
Researchers have found that finding positive distractions can help us deal with that second category: we do our homework, we watch our favourite movies, we get in bed with a novel. That is a very appropriate strategy right now. There’s probably a lot to be said for talking about coronavirus and anxiety as a way to seek relief, and there is also a lot to be said about not talking about it as a way to seek relief. Helping kids find that right balance will make a big difference.
UNICEF: On distractions, it’s going to be tempting for a lot of teenagers to bury themselves in screens right now. How can parents and teenagers best handle that?
Dr. Damour: I would be very up front with a teenager and say, “Okay, you and I both know you’ve got a heck of a lot of time on your hands, but you and I both know that it’s not going to be a good idea to have unfettered access to screens and/or social media. That’s not healthy, that’s not smart and it may amplify your anxiety. We really don’t think you having a social media free-for-all is a good idea under any condition. So the fact that you’re not in school and your time isn’t being taken up by classes doesn’t necessarily mean that all of that time should be replaced with social media.” But I think you just say that in a very up-front way which acknowledges that, naturally, there’s no way that the time spent in school will be entirely replaced with being online.
And then ask the teenager, “How should we handle this? What should our plans be? What do you propose in this new normal or new short-term normal. Your time is no longer structured in the ways you’re accustomed to, come up with a structure and show me the structure that you have in mind, and then we can think it through together.”
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