How to support your miserable teen

Many teens are still suffering. But you can help them.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

In general, right now, things for my teen are looking up: Classes are back in-person, it’s almost the end of the school year, and I hear vaccines are going to be available for adolescents soon. But my teen is still miserable and grumpy, and I don’t know what to do. Help!

Sincerely,

Worn Down

Dear Worn Down,

I honestly cannot imagine parenting a teen right now. But I think it might be worse to be a teen right now. Adolescence is a time when kids are supposed to pull away from their parents and gravitate towards their peers, when they are supposed to assert their independence and develop a sense of identity. Yet the pandemic has made all of these things impossible. Teens are stuck at home with their parents and warned to avoid their peers; they have to follow strict rules that rob them of their friendships and their budding independence.

In other words, the things teens need most are the very things the pandemic is denying them.

And, surprise, teens aren’t faring very well. In a November 2020 survey of just over 1,900 U.S. teens and young adults conducted by the non-profit organization Mental Health America, only 26 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel hopeful about the future.” (An even smaller percentage of LGBTQ teens and teens of color did.)

So what can parents do to help their teens (and tweens) if they’re really struggling? I talked to a few psychologists who specialize in adolescent development while reporting a story on teens and the pandemic for Undark magazine. Here are three things they said that stuck with me.

  1. Remember how fucked up everything is, and how unfair things are for your kid.

One of the hardest things about parenting right now is that we have to deal with so many things at the same time. So when teens complain about the awfulness of this or that for the billionth time, we might be inclined to lose our patience and bark Just get over it already!

But as much as we can, we should instead try to empathize with our kids. (Again and again and again.) These are totally bizarre and unfair conditions for teenagers,” said psychologist Lisa Damour, a senior adviser to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University, who co-hosts an excellent parenting podcast and has written several parenting books I highly recommend. She suggested that parents say something like: I can’t believe we even have to have this conversation, that you have to ask my permission to see your friend. I hate this for you. It’s not fair.

To draw out your inner empath, keep telling yourself that what your teen is being asked to do goes against everything their brains and bodies are telling them. Not seeing friends, for instance, is a really big deal for them (even more so than for us). “My fear is that we’ll just sort of become accustomed to it and stop treating it as the completely bizarre set of circumstances that it is — [that we’ll] stop empathizing with teenagers about the utter bizarreness of what is being asked of them,” Damour said. Child & teen development specialist Robyn Silverman agreed: “Empathy is really important right now,” she said. (Silverman also hosts a fantastic parenting podcast.)

This means you should also let your teens lose their shit from time to time and not lose your shit at them when they do, if you can help it. Adolescence is a sea of emotions and hormones and wants and needs, but the good news is that often, teens’ emotional outbursts are short-lived. And the best response to their waves of big feelings is calmness if you can muster it. Among other things, research suggests that when parents respond angrily during challenging conversations with their teens, they can undermine the strength of the parent-teen relationship.

Maybe you’re wondering why your teen isn’t doing better than she was six months ago, given that things with Covid-19 are looking up. Psychologists and psychiatrists say that it could take people quite a while to start feeling OK again. According to the CDC, for instance, more young adults aged 18 to 29 were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression last month than they were in April 2020. For more on why, read the piece I published in Elemental last month on the topic.

Consider, too, getting your teen professional help if you notice that they are no longer enjoying the things they used to enjoy or if they’re eating or sleeping a lot more or less than usual (which are signs of clinical depression). To get support, contact their pediatrician, school counselor, or a local mental health organization. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also offers free tips for talking with loved ones and supporting them.

  1. Give teens freedom and autonomy. Help them foster a sense of control.

Because teens crave autonomy and the pandemic has essentially robbed them of the autonomy they had, parents should brainstorm creative new ways to provide their teens with a sense of independence.

Phyllis Fagell, a middle school counselor at the independent Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and the author of Middle School Matters, says that one thing she does with her teen kids is to let them keep their rooms as messy as they want. “They have so little space and agency and independence that I don't bug them about cleaning their room. That is their space. I close the door and I don't look,” she said.

If that’s not something you think you can muster, there are of course other options. Ask if they want to cook dinner for the family every so often; let them dye their hair; suggest that they do online volunteering for a cause they care about; give them the authority to call family meetings; encourage them to cultivate new hobbies.

Fagell also suggested that parents help kids realize that they always have some control over their situation. If they’re sad or anxious, help them identify the things they can do to make themselves feel better. Maybe that’s calling a friend or watching a favorite TV show. Teens often think in black-and-white — “nothing will make me feel better except getting to go to that party!” — but we can help them recognize there are little things that can inch their mindset and circumstances in a better direction, too.

Sometimes, too, fostering a sense of control may be as simple as helping your teen see a situation in a new way. Let’s say your kid is upset about something that went down over social media. (Teens are forced to do much of their socializing online this year, where it’s far harder to interpret tone and contextual cues, and that means there’s a lot more confusion and hurt feelings.) One thing you can do, Fagell said, is to encourage your kid to come up with alternate explanations for what happened — like Maybe she fell asleep early and that’s why she didn’t reply or Perhaps he was in a rush and that’s why his text was so brief. These alternate explanations “don't have to be realistic. And they don't have to believe them,” Fagell said. But they can help teens “get in the habit of thinking a bit more flexibly, to help them have an easier time assuming positive intent.”

  1. When teens want to talk, make time to listen. And actually listen, rather than telling them what to do.

Kids can have really bad timing. My 10-year-old has a keen ability to sniff out when I’m on deadline and picks that time to wander into my office hoping to chit-chat. But this is the thing about tweens and teens: They’re often unwilling to open up, so when they do want to talk, we need to make time for them. “When you're about to get on a work call, or at two o'clock in the morning, that may be exactly when they are ready to open up to you,” Silverman said.

Then, when your kid does start talking, shut up and listen. What teens typically want is that “you are quietly present without an agenda,” Damour said. (Here’s a great piece Damour wrote on the topic last year.) In other words, let them vent, and give them empathy — but don’t jump in with ideas or solutions. “When kids come to us, they don't often want us to make suggestions. And that's usually what we do,” Damour said. “We're like, ‘Well, here's what you need to do.’ And the kid’s like, ‘I wish I'd never said anything.’”

What if your teen doesn’t ever seem to want to talk? Go out of your way to check in on them so that they know you want to be supportive. “Don't stop asking, ‘How are you? How can I be helpful? You seem sad, you seem depressed, you seem frustrated. My door’s always open.’ Even if it feels like it's falling on deaf ears,” Silverman said. Eventually, when your teen is ready, they will come to you. But keep in mind that you can be silently supportive, too, Silverman said. Sit with your teen on the couch and just be with them every so often. “It can just be two people sitting with each other and feeling that sense of connection,” she said.

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