Listen and Connect: How Parents Can Support Teens’ Mental Health Right Now

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There’s no handbook for how to raise teenagers during a pandemic. Adolescents are struggling for valid reasons and many parents are grappling with how to support their teens while also navigating their own pressing concerns. 

Katie Hurley, an adolescent psychotherapist and author of the new book, “A Year Of Positive Thinking For Teens,” says that in her practice, she has seen the toll of these last several months. What do teens need most right now, from her perspective?

“It sounds really simple, but the thing that teenagers are craving the most is connection and listening because this is hard for everyone,” she said.

Take Your Own Emotional Temperature

With so much of school and social life occurring over screens, parents offer their children a vital physical presence. But this can also feel daunting as parents feel the pressure of meeting their family’s physical and emotional needs while also assuming greater responsibility for their children’s schooling.

Hurley encourages adults to check their own emotional thermometer throughout the day. Our children are watching how we react and our responses matter, says Hurley. “Children take their cues first from us, always. We are their people.” But adults do not need to be paragons of positivity. We don’t have to pretend it’s easy, says Hurley. Instead, we can talk about how we are feeling with teens “so that they know that, right now, feeling like you're on a roller coaster every day is normal.”

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No single strategy, like deep breathing, will magically make our worries disappear. That said, “having coping strategies in your back pocket is super important,” says Hurley. “It helps us know what to do when our stress levels rise, but it doesn't fix everything.”  It also takes consistent practice to hone these skills so that you can apply them when you feel your temperature rise.  With both adults and kids experiencing challenges right now, it’s a powerful time for families to practice being open about emotions and making self-care a family affair.

“Whether it is taking that daily walk or doing an online yoga class or some sort of exercise to get the endorphins going, we have to think about our own coping strategies,” says Hurley. She also strongly recommends meditation apps because mindfulness is a proven way to reduce the acute stress response. “When we use it, it works.”

Check-In Without Interviewing

Teens need adults to keep an eye on them right now, but sometimes how we check-in can inadvertently increase anxiety. “We have to practice checking in with them in non-threatening ways,” says Hurley. That means putting a stop to “constantly interviewing kids about what homework they’ve done, what they’ve sent in and what's still outstanding.” 

Right now, there’s a lot of media chatter about “lost learning and how kids are falling behind,” says Hurley. "And it's translating to pressure within the home.”  

It’s hard to see our children struggle with remote or hybrid schooling, so “we keep interviewing them to try to get information so that we can know how to fix it. We can't fix this. But what we can do is we can step back and say, ‘Hey, this is hard academically and emotionally. It's exceptionally difficult to learn math online right now.’ What we need to do more of is just listening and asking, ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling?’" 

Hurley said the most common response she’s hearing from kids right now is that they are lonely. They miss their friends, and they miss “a teacher leaning over their desk to point something out on their paper. Teachers have this magical way of connecting with kids in small ways and they can't get that over Zoom, no matter how hard they try.”

Meet Them Where They Are

Parents often report that their teens are not coming to them for support. But they are, Hurley says.

“They're just doing it in a way that you don't like. When they're venting or sniping at you over little things – there it is! They are trying to hand you their feelings. They're projecting outward because those feelings are uncomfortable and they don't know what to do with them.”

Sometimes teens seek to connect over play through video games, cards, basketball, jigsaw puzzles, etc. “Play is how kids connect at all ages,” says Hurley. “It's a reason teenagers will say, ‘Dad, would you shoot hoops with me?’” 

As Harvard psychologist Nancy Hill once noted, “Parenting teens is like hugging a cactus. Even as the ‘warm fuzzies’ are not often reciprocated, teens still need them, still need to know they are loved unconditionally.” According to a study she authored, parental warmth amplifies all other parenting strategies, even when teens distance themselves from parents.

Listen Your Way Through Their Problems

The best thing parents and caregivers can give teens right now is the undivided attention of listening, empathizing and compassion, says Hurley. When teens do share their worries, resist the urge to either minimize them or solve the problem for them.

“They want you to listen your way through their problems so that they have somebody to vent to and bounce ideas off of,” says Hurley. Practice being a sounding board – a calm presence who offers short, empathetic responses such as: "Wow, that's hard. I feel for you. I'm heartbroken for you. This seems really difficult." 

In the face of this empathetic listening, teens often start to solve their own problems. “They shift from what feels like a litany of complaints to a little bit of, ‘Maybe I should do this or that.’ They start coming up with ideas,” says Hurley. The hardest part for parents is to just listen and not share our own ideas because we know what's worked for us.  

Hurley offered this example of how adult language can support teen problem-solving: When teens share what bothers them, first validate their emotions with "That sounds really hard” or “That stinks." And then ask something like, “Is this a problem that you think you can solve or is this a problem that we need to endure? Are you looking for an answer or do you want help riding out the storm by talking you through it, guiding you through it or just listening you through it?” Nine times out of ten, says Hurley, they want someone to “listen through it.”

If teens struggle to come up with their own next steps, adults can reaffirm that “there's no easy answer,” says Hurley, and perhaps ask, “What are some things that give you little bits of hope right now? What would help you feel one percent better?” These “little bits of hope” can become small steps for moving forward.

Drowning Doesn’t Build Resilience

In the last 20 years, the term “helicopter parenting” became shorthand for parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives and whose “hovering” interferes with children’s ability to develop independence.  But, like any other parenting conundrum, the desire to avoid becoming a “helicopter parent” can be taken to extremes. When teens are in distress, sometimes parents think, "I need to step away from you. You have to figure it out all by yourself."  And while adolescents are highly capable problem-solvers, we don’t need to leave them to go it alone. “That's not resilience. That's loneliness,” says Hurley. “We know from years and years of research that human beings need each other. We are supposed to help each other out. We aren't supposed to be drowning in a stormy sea without a life ring.” Rather, she says, teens need adults to be the anchors to hold them steady.

In fact, the science around resilience –  or the capacity to recover from difficulties – highlights the need for adults to support children in developing this character strength. According to research out of Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, “Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait . . .  [It] is shaped throughout life by the accumulation of experiences — both good and bad — and the continuing development of adaptive coping skills connected to those experiences.” Hurley says, “If there were awards for your soft skills, resilience would be a lifetime achievement award. It’s something that’s accrued over time, as we learn that we can work through hard things, we can solve problems and we can cope. But it’s not reasonable to expect teenagers to be able to do this independently a hundred percent of the time because their brains are not even fully formed until they’re 25 years old.” 

And here’s more good news for adults worried about their own capacity to help their adolescents right now. According to research, “children who do well despite serious hardship have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.”  In other words, in tough times, a parent or caregiver’s very presence can be a protective factor. 

Practice Zooming Out & Finding Purpose

As humans, we tend to zoom in to hyperfocus on what we think is important. For parents of teens, that often includes grades, test scores and the college process. But what if those aren’t the right places to focus our lenses right now? Hurley says, “We have to hit pause, zoom out and say, ‘What other things can our kids learn during this time?’ Can they learn the value of pulling in the trash cans for an elderly neighbor? Can they learn how to help a younger child by reading them stories over Zoom? Yes, they can. There are all sorts of different ways that we can channel this stressful energy into positive outcomes.” 

And if a teen has a hard time thinking outside of themselves right now – beyond what they are feeling and missing – that doesn’t mean they are selfish. It just means that they're human and they're struggling.  Meet them there and say, "I get this. This is hard. What else can you do?" says Hurley. “We have to help kids find some purpose, anything. Because when we have purpose, we are optimistic and we feel like we can get through hard things.”

Look for Small Pieces of Happiness

For parents who are struggling to find their own equilibrium, Hurley suggests looking for small pieces of happiness and hope each day.  “We have this tendency to kind of hitch our wagons to big ideas and big things. But right now, we need to dial that back and look for the small things. So, if siblings who have been fighting for six months straight are not fighting as much anymore, that's kind of a big thing.” Likewise, if a teen who is struggling in school finds a new interest – from birdwatching to cooking to Garageband compositions – “that's a big win right there; we have to look for these little, big things.” 

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Similarly, we can acknowledge all the ways teens are coping and growing and giving and express our awe at how well they are doing in an unnerving time. Recently, Hurley found herself saying to her own kids, “‘I think you guys are remarkable. This has been a really difficult time. And it hasn't always been easy for you, but you're weathering the storm with us, and you're doing what you need to do. And you're coming to us when it's too hard. And you're asking to play a game or walk the dog together if you need to connect.’ Those things are important and we have to call those out.”