Social Distancing is Hard for Teens and Tweens, Here's How to Help Them Cope

Social distancing is hard on everyone, especially super social middle and high school aged kids. Experts weigh in on how to help your older kids through it while also keeping yourself sane.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing guidelines are changing the way families live. Across the world, day-to-day life has been put on pause while families hunker down at home to stop the spread.

My family is one of many doing our part to social distance by staying home together. While my three youngest children are thriving in close quarters with endless family time, my oldest has struggled. She misses her friends, she's irritable, and she's glued to her laptop. It's basic middle schooler stuff on social distancing steroids.

So how can parents like myself help our older kids right now? Here is what experts say about helping them navigate this scary and uncertain time.

girl sitting using cell phone with bunny ears phone case
Reggie Casagrande/Getty Images

Talk About Social Distancing

"Speak directly and use facts from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC," advises Carl Sheperis, Ph.D., dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. "You don't want to create unreasonable fear in children, but you have to make sure that they understand the facts."

Teens and tweens need to understand that social distancing is our best defense against spreading disease. It's important to dispel any misinformation that may make our children feel that social distancing isn't a necessary measure, or that COVID-19 is an "old person's disease" they play no role in.

"It is critical for older children, teens, and young adults to understand that they have a direct impact on how this virus spreads. Social distancing saves lives and it is important for them to follow the CDC guidelines very closely," adds Dr. Carl Sheperis.

Maintain Structure

Isolation is hard for everyone, especially super social tweens and teens. Children can feel isolated even at home with parents and siblings—losing the social ties they've built outside of their family can feel like a loss of independence and identity.

"Social kids want nothing more than to be in spaces with others. During this time, you have to help them know the rules changed and so we changed, but that it is temporary," says Donna Sheperis, Ph.D., associate professor at Palo Alto University and wife of Dr. Carl Sheperis.

Structure is an essential tool for coping with isolation. Have meals at regular times, set expectations for chores and school work, and encourage everyone to get dressed and attend to hygiene.

Spend Time Together

Extra time together is an incredible silver lining to an otherwise chaotic and stressful situation. Regularly schedule in opportunities for fun, creativity, and physical activity. Exercising together, making art, or just watching a movie can ease the strain of social isolation.

"Kids may be particularly sensitive to the lack of control in their lives right now, so involve them in family decisions," says Victor G. Carrion, M.D., professor and vice-chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Early Life Stress and Pediatric Anxiety Program. That can include simply asking them what movie to watch or what game to play.

Here are some activities to try with older children:

Change Screen-Time Expectations

The best way to help your teen or tween combat loneliness during social distancing is to relax restrictions on screen time and social media.

"You don't have to be the perfect parent right now. Allow your child to have increased screen time, but make sure that the devices have all of the safety protections for their online exploration," says Dr. Carl Sheperis.

Expanded limits on technology makes room for online learning, social media, online messaging, and other tools to keep kids in touch with friends and classmates. Forget screen time recommendations for a while. Instead, brush up on safe tech use for children so you can feel confident letting them move their social life online.

"The concern now isn't about time on technology, but healthy use of technology in education, entertainment, and social connection categories," says Dr. Donna Sheperis.

One part of healthy screen time during this crisis is setting limits on how much media coverage of COVID-19 your children are exposed to. Too much access to the news can cause major stress and anxiety.

"Staying informed is important. However, parents should guide how much exposure to COVID-19 news kids are receiving," says Dr. Carrion. "Remember it happens not only via TV, but also their phones, laptops, and tablets."

Model Good Behavior

"You are modeling for your kids at all times. They read you and respond in kind. That doesn't mean you have to be perfect but it's important to know that they are looking to you to set the tone," says Dr. Donna Sheperis.

Create a sense of calm by taking care of yourself first and foremost. Make sure you're getting the right amount of sleep, eating well, exercising, and finding ways to unwind.

"Parents can model good behavior for their kids by engaging in self-care," says Dr. Carrion. "They should also model responsible behaviors around use of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances."

Watch for Signs of Depression

Isolation, uncertainty, and loss of routine can lead to depression. Signs of depression include becoming withdrawn, changes in sleeping and eating habits, and decreased energy levels. While some degree of this is a normal part of adolescence, it's important to watch for significant behavior changes.

For high school children in particular, canceled proms and graduation ceremonies will take time to grieve. Mourn these losses with them and offer your support.

If you feel you need help, visit the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's website for more resources or contact your family practitioner.

Be Kind to Yourself

And always keep in mind: There is no way to be a perfect parent, especially during a pandemic. Be gentle with yourself and your children while you figure it out together.

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