In an ideal world, teens would seek their parents’ advice and comfort during troubling times. But, we know that’s not always the case. Parents are often the last people teens want to talk to when they’re stressed.

Even if they appear to be adjusting well, teens are likely being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This may be the first substantial crisis of their lifetime, and it’s altered typical adolescent experiences such as playing sports and attending prom.

Talkative or not, teens do different things to signal how they feel. Some channel frustration or boredom into learning TikTok dances or making homemade face masks. Others may act out or grow moodier.

Transparent communication with your teenagers helps them feel safe and grounded. But you know your child best. If you feel like something’s off, consider these approaches to communicate with your teen about COVID-19.

1. Acknowledge and validate their feelings

Nothing will shut down teens faster than minimizing their emotions. Unfortunately, that’s an easy mistake to make.

Adults can rely on past experiences for reassurance that things will turn out OK. But teens don’t have that backlog. Missing out on sports or being isolated from boyfriends and girlfriends are new experiences. These challenges can absorb a lot of their emotional energy, which may already be thin because of the pandemic.

If we want our teens to communicate with us, we must show them we understand, are ready to listen, and know that their feelings matter. Avoid dismissing their emotions with comments like, “That’s not a big deal.” Instead, say, “That does sound tough. What do you think would help you feel better?”

Acknowledgement followed by simple questions can lead to productive conversations. Together, you can brainstorm solutions to address their concerns.

2. Practice transparency

We want our kids to see us as strong, capable and approachable. But everyone has bad days, especially when stress is high.

If you notice your teen is struggling, take a look inward. Perhaps you are having a tough time, too. If so, you can say, “I had a rough day yesterday thinking about everything that’s going on. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling concerned about you.”

Follow up by sharing a few strategies that made you feel better, like taking a walk or talking with friends on the phone. Approaching the moment with transparency helps them see that you empathize with them. Over time, they’ll be more likely to open up to you.

3. Ask about their friends

Through all stages of adolescence, teens often look to their friends for support. During the pandemic, more of that interaction is occurring online, where phrasing and body language can be more challenging to discern.

Though your home isn’t full of your kids’ friends right now, it’s still important to ask how their friends are doing. These conversations can help you identify certain struggles and behaviors in your child.

Sometimes, teenagers carry emotional weight worrying about friends who are having a tough time. If you notice your child is upset or withdrawn after chatting with a friend, mention that you noticed and ask if they want to talk. Don’t force the issue — let them know you care and are available to talk or listen.

If you know their friends’ parents, check in with them occasionally. If their teens are also feeling surly, you can work together to figure out what’s wrong and help your children navigate the situation.

4. Ease their guilt

It’s not uncommon for people to develop guilt or sadness in the midst of a crisis. As people around the world are falling ill with COVID-19, your teen might mourn the loss of school, sports or going on dates.

It’s normal to feel bad about your situation despite what’s going on around you. Remind your child that everyone is struggling in various ways. Hearing painful stories from others sometimes raises guilt because we’re reminded of the positives in our lives.

Help them acknowledge these emotions and take time to work through them. We practice this skill with families at St. Jude who are facing chronic illnesses. It can help manage the stress, and working through it will help teens feel more in control of their own thoughts and feelings.

5. Give teens control

For many families, discussions about curfews and clothing choices have given way to arguments about wearing facemasks and not having friends over. It’s especially frustrating when teens see friends who are allowed to do things you don’t let them do.

It’s normal for teenagers to push limits. There’s a lot of pressure to act like adults. It is important to balance your understanding of that behavior with protecting your child’s health.

Offer an explanation when you put your foot down. Teenagers are much better at accepting rules if they understand the reasoning. Provide choices to give them a sense of autonomy.

For example, let’s say you make a rule that it’s non-negotiable to wear a facemask in public right now. Let your teen choose the pattern of their mask or make and decorate their own.

6. Provide facts in the face of uncertainty

There’s a lot of misinformation on the web about COVID-19. As teens spend more time online during the pandemic, they will more than likely encounter conflicting information.

You can help by asking questions: Where did they get the information? What do they think about it? What does the opposing side think?

Explore the topic from all sides. Then, work together to find research from a source you know to be credible, such as:

  • Your pediatrician’s office
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Look for .edu or .org at the end of the web address to start digging for facts backed by data. For example, on stjude.org, we’ve compiled a family resource center that includes data and talking points for kids and teens. They may not want to hear the facts from you, but they might be more willing to accept facts from other sources.

Talking about it can help. If your teens don’t want to talk about COVID-19, don’t force the conversation. Acknowledge that you respect their feelings and you are there if they want to talk.

7. Give teens privacy

Teens value alone time, and during quarantine, they likely don’t get much of it with everyone at home.

Try to be flexible. Let them know you want to respect their privacy. You could suggest scheduling “quiet times” between schoolwork and exercise breaks so they can have uninterrupted solitude.

If that’s not an option, perhaps they can wear earbuds and take a break to socialize online or enjoy a book without distractions.

8. Note changes in behavior or mood

You know your child best. Frustration and sadness are understandable right now, but certain behaviors may signal something more serious.

For example, if your teens have stopped any routine behaviors, lost interest in hobbies or preferred activities, or seem more irritable than before, they might be feeling depressed or anxious.

During stressful times, teenagers might have depressive or anxious symptoms without actually having a disorder. Sometimes, it can help to talk with a counselor or other professional. Ask your child if they’ve noticed changes to their mood or behavior and whether they’re open to talking with someone.

Many mental health offices have implemented forms of telemedicine. If teens are not interested, they’ll let you know. However, contact their doctor right away if they make statements such as, “Things would be better if I wasn’t here,” or that they may hurt themselves. Always take these comments seriously, even if you think your child didn’t mean it. More information is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

9. Take time to clear your mind

Parents are juggling a lot right now between work, homeschooling and responsibilities at home. You need to take care of yourself to continue caring for your family.

Teens often get protective of stressed-out parents. They may try to assume more responsibility by caring for younger siblings or putting on a brave face. We see that a lot in the hospital when parents are worried about a sick child. While endearing, that reaction is not healthy for the family long term.

Parental modeling of coping strategies, including self-care, is an important way to teach teens about healthy behaviors.

Plan your schedule to include downtime. Turn off the news and reserve time for relaxing activities, like yoga, walking in the neighborhood or playing board games. Invite your teen to join you once in a while; practicing self-care is an important skill to learn early in life. 

As your family perseveres through the pandemic, maintain open lines of communication. Don’t get discouraged if your child doesn’t always want to talk. It’s a tough time for everybody in different ways. You can get through it together, one question and conversation at a time.

Sarah Daniels, MS, CCLS, of the St. Jude Child Life Program, contributed to this post.