Why Parents Must Have Empathy for Teens During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Empathy Flows From Understanding 

The current public health pandemic has taken so much away from young people. They are separated from their friends. They’ve been asked to learn in a whole new way. Their activities, including sports and extracurriculars, are canceled. Major rites of passage –  graduations, proms, religious coming of age ceremonies – have been postponed. Those getting ready to graduate have had precious memory-building months with friends shattered. Their frustration is well-earned.

One of the most genuinely respectful things a person can do is strive to understand another person’s point of view. If teens learn this, they will be prepared to have healthier relationships in adulthood. Teens will learn this vital lesson firsthand by experiencing the reassurance of adults working to understand what they are going through. By appreciating their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you can build an important element of resilience within your adolescent — empathy for others.

Frustration may Lead to Acting Out

In addition to losing out on events, young people have also lost many freedoms and privileges. Although they long ago earned the right to walk or drive around the neighborhood, they are now required to stay home. They may be told where they can go and what they can do. In some cases, they’ve returned to a level of supervision they long ago moved past. In others, they’ve taken on extra child-care responsibilities. While there are benefits to this added responsibility, they may be frustrated by having siblings’ needs taken care of before their own. 

Frustration and loss can drive teens to act-out. Feeling like their independence is being taken away may propel some youth to reclaim their independence assertively. It’s easier to be empathetic when you consider that their behavior is a reaction to restrictions that interfere with their developmental need to push limits and expand horizons. Here are three ways to show you understand their needs:

Covid-19 hasn’t created thoughtful boundaries. It has created restrictions. These restrictions fly in the face of adolescents’ needs to be exploring and gaining independence.

1) Give Them Independence

Adolescence is the time to answer the question, “Who am I?” (And to do so independent of parents.) Stretching limits and testing boundaries are critical elements of getting to the answer during the adolescent years. Tweens and teens grow by venturing a bit further than their previous comfort zones. Encourage growth by carefully setting boundaries to make sure they don’t stretch into dangerous or immoral territory. But, give them opportunities to learn, fail, and recover within those boundaries. Covid-19 hasn’t created thoughtful boundaries. It has created restrictions. These restrictions fly in the face of adolescents’ needs to be exploring and gaining independence. So, we should expect them to push back pretty hard. Demonstrate understanding by giving them as much freedom and independence as possible — while also ensuring their safety.

2) Support Them to Connect With Friends

We all miss our friends and social contact. But for adolescents, this is even more painful. The emotional centers of the brain are developing rapidly. This leads to heightened emotions, including the ability to connect with others and read how people are feeling. The brain’s reward centers are wired to activate around peers. Adolescence is about preparing to launch from the family nest and to enter the adult world of work and relationships. The brain is designed to promote those relationships. Peer relationships are the prep work needed to have fulfilling and satisfying adult relationships later. This is why being separated from peers is so profoundly difficult for adolescents and why we must do everything we can to support their ability to connect with friends. Help them film a TikTok or set up a virtual game night. Suggest they plan to read the same book or watch the same movie as a friend and then share their thoughts and feelings by phone afterward. 

3) Encourage Their Curiosity

Your two and three-year-old wanted to understand how everything worked, from why they can’t have ice cream for breakfast to why the sky is blue. You celebrated their curiosity. Your adolescent also wants to understand the “whys,” but on a much deeper level. Their questions include some biggies, like “Why do we allow people to go hungry if there is enough food for everyone?” Or, “Why can’t everyone get access to a medical test?” This pandemic is full of questions that are hard to answer. Adolescents will struggle with these unknowns. Participate in thoughtful discussions with your tweens and teens about these issues. Work together to find credible information. It will encourage their inquisitive nature and strengthen your connection.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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