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The 2020 Back-to-School List for Teens’ Emotional Well-Being

In a sea of Covid-19 confusion, this seems certain: The pandemic will disrupt school this fall. Attending school part-time, sporadically as viral outbreaks allow, or completely remotely may make excellent medical sense. But learning from home, or being constrained by in-school safety protocols, will reduce students’ exposure to the ordinary magic — the woven-in forces that promote healthy adolescent development — that happens at school.

Can parents help compensate for what will necessarily be lost? Yes. Forget the backpacks and binders. Here are the essential supplies teenagers will need for the strange school year ahead.

The healthy adolescent trajectory toward independence involves loosening emotional ties to parents and strengthening ties to peers. This critical transition almost certainly happens best when teenagers can get together in person. While communication technology has been a welcome asset for many adolescents since the pandemic began, a recent survey found that 61 percent of teenagers reported feeling more lonely as a result of the pandemic.

Given that adolescents cannot, at present, count on hanging out with peers during the school day, we should make sure that they still have ways to see their friends. Unfortunately, teenagers often fail to observe social distancing guidelines, even if they start off with the best of intentions. They may need supervision or specific guidance, such as having them meet outdoors or go on bike rides with friends — wearing masks when appropriate.

When teenagers bristle at our rules for socializing, as they understandably will, we can explain that we are not trying to be at odds with them. Rather, we are on their side against the shared enemy of Covid-19. As such, we can also invite and take seriously teenagers’ suggestions about how they might visit with their peers while keeping themselves and others healthy.

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Teenagers benefit from spending time with adults who aren’t their parents; it’s not easy to establish independence and take guidance from one’s folks at the very same time. Thankfully, adolescents will accept the same advice from a mentor or boss that they would reflexively rebuff from their parents. And though they can be quick to dismiss praise from their parents on the grounds that we cannot possibly be objective, they’ll take to heart compliments from teachers, coaches and advisers.

But many adults who work in schools are already expressing concern about their ability to make meaningful connections with students online or in classrooms where everyone is wearing a mask and contending with safety rules. So we should look for ways to help teenagers put caring adults in their traffic patterns if they have to miss out on in-person time with the grown-ups they usually see at school.

Now, more than ever, raising children may take a village. Include your teenagers when finding socially distanced ways to spend time with adults they like. Barter mentoring with your friends: Offer to engage their teenager around a shared interest and see if they can do the same for yours. If your adolescent can safely hold a job, volunteer in the community or be active at your place of worship under the watchful eye of a trustworthy adult, help make that happen.

Routines are the best way to ensure that critical needs get met. They are good for everyone, including teenagers. A reliable daily schedule with designated time for learning, leisure, physical activity and sleep promotes overall well-being and reduces the stress of making plans on the fly. Under normal conditions, going to school forces students into routines that usually keep them busy, growing and active. In contrast, during the unstructured time of weekends and summers young people are more likely to use screens, be sedentary, eat poorly and fall into irregular sleep patterns.

It probably won’t work to hand any self-respecting teenager a carefully crafted agenda of what you expect them to do hour by hour. A better bet would be to stipulate what should be part of any daily schedule — such as set times for studying, physical activity, adequate sleep and pitching in around the house or community — and then let your teenager come up with a plan that you get to approve.

School is stressful, and stress is cumulative. Remember your teenager’s mood on the roughest day he or she had at school before the pandemic began? Now imagine a day like that on top of the emotional wear and tear of living under pandemic conditions for six months or more. It’s probably smart to expect a bumpy ride.

Here’s the good news. Research shows that strong, supportive relationships at home help young people to manage — and even thrive — in the face of persistently difficult circumstances. Having parents who are kind, patient and predictable can help teenagers buffer the chronic stress of living under Covid-19.

That said, it’s not always easy to bring our parenting A-game when we, too, are feeling worn down by the pandemic. These steps will help. First, remember that teenagers often want nothing more than our quiet and steady presence, even when they are in the midst of an emotional meltdown. Second, compassionately normalize the difficulty of this time for teenagers and resist the impulse to fire off solutions and suggestions when they have a problem. Finally, do your best to take excellent care of yourself so that you’ll have the energy you’ll need to take care of your teenager.

The young people we love are headed into a school year that is unprecedented, unpredictable and not what any of them would have chosen. Let’s be sure to supply them with what they’ll certainly need.


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