On Tuesday, May 11, Dr. Jennifer McClean, consulting psychologist and longtime friend of Nashoba Brooks School, spoke to Middle School parents about parenting adolescents in the context of COVID-19.
The Zoom meeting was a welcome connection for everyone trying to navigate this unique time with teens and tweens.
Drawing on her training as a psychologist as well as her experience as an educator and a parent of adolescents provided a comforting perspective and down-to-earth approach to navigating challenging parenting situations. In her opening remarks, she set the stage for what many parents are feeling.
Dr. McLean noted that “for many, this is the first time we have felt unsafe,” and she described the variety of feelings of loss that individuals are experiencing at this time, noting that they include loss of daily routines, much anticipated traditions, and even the profound sadness that surrounds the death of a loved one. Dr. McLean used the framework of the stages of grief to help identify the challenges of managing specific and ambiguous loss. She noted that though routines may be forced to change during this time of physical distancing, routines serve an important purpose in helping to minimize our decision making. Finding a balance of flexibility, autonomy, and structure is helpful for all members of a family system. Parents of adolescents may need to renegotiate existing routines during this time, but it is valuable to be explicit about how and why things will change during this time, reminding us all that though circumstances may change, the family values that drive them should not.
Dr. McLean emphasized that recognizing and experiencing feelings—even difficult feelings during difficult times—is healthy. As challenging as this time is, it is also an opportunity for adults to model the ability to demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity, a critical skill at any age.
Dr. McLean noted some behaviors that you may observe in teens and tweens as they adjust from a routine in which they spent the majority of their time at school and with friends to the current context in which they now spend the majority of time with family. Adolescence, by nature, is a time when young people are seeking independence. This shift in routine may result in changes in behavior that include: seeking solitary time, perceived lack of motivation or focus, regression to activities that bring comfort (a favorite childhood television show, book, or hobby), and mood changes including irritability.
Dr. McLean then offered suggestions for how adults can help. Rather than trying to problem solve for an adolescent, Dr. McLean encourages parents to empower children by helping them learn to problem solve themselves. To do so, Dr. McLean suggests:
Empathy: Demonstrating that it is okay to make room for uncomfortable emotions.
Naming feelings: “I know that it’s frustrating and disappointing, but you will get to the other side...”
Listen and help problem solve through it: “Tell me more...on a scale from 1-10, how bad is it?...how can we get that back down to a 4?”
Engage when ready: If feelings are heightened, it is important to recalibrate before trying to engage in reflective discussion.
Finally, Dr. McLean discussed how parents can recognize when it is time to seek additional help. She encouraged parents to be particularly mindful of children who are prone to anxiety or depression during this time and to engage with the School to support their children. Dr. McLean noted that parents should pay careful attention to changes in behavior or moods that result in impaired functioning. Finally, she stressed that parents know their children best, and that if something does not feel right, she encouraged them to remember that there are many resources available through schools, primary care physicians, and mental health professions who can offer remote support.
Dr. McLean concluded by reminding us that kids are resilient, and reiterated the importance of being compassionate with ourselves and others during this time. “We are not going to be perfect parents...we are all going moment to moment, so be kind to yourself.”