Many teenagers are understandably upset when faced with a third grade disrupted by Covid-19. Some are frustrated with the return to masks and other precautions. Others are concerned about how they will stay safe in school or worry that highly anticipated activities will be postponed or canceled. You might be furious at the seeming eternity of the pandemic. How should we as adults try in their life to help them deal with all this turmoil?
First, let’s accept that all of these emotions, however uncomfortable, are not harmful or cause serious concern. Rather, they are almost certainly evidence of mental health; Teens who are unhappy with how this fall is playing out are likely having the right feelings at the right time. What matters is how they regulate these feelings.
How teenagers express and hold emotions
When you have teenagers in your care, think of their swelling emotions like water in a rushing river: you want to keep it moving but not let it overflow. Sometimes teenagers need to be free to express their grief and frustration. At other moments, they may need to withhold strong emotions that threaten to flood them.
Alone teenagers regulate their emotions more effectively than they are supposed to. They often keep their emotions going by simply talking about what is bothering them. It is in these moments that adults can sometimes be overwhelmed by our protective instincts; We respond with alarms or advice when it is usually more helpful to tune in and empathize. When a teen tells their dad that they feel discouraged by the persistence of the pandemic, the dad may see the value of just venting their son instead of trying to “fix” things. Listening carefully and showing genuine compassion may be all that it takes to keep your son’s emotional waters from building up.
Not all teenagers are public speakers, however. Teens in search of psychological help may need a good shout to get rid of their frustration with the devastation caused by the pandemic. Others can dampen their emotions through intense physical activity. As long as it’s safe, don’t be put off by the way young people discharge mental tension. You may not like the sound of heavy metal music from the nursery, but research shows that listening to sad or angry music can help young people process and relieve stress.
It’s important for teens to find effective ways to express their feelings, but that’s only half of what it takes to regulate emotions. You also need to use adaptive strategies that contain feelings before they become overwhelming. For example, a teen might calm their nerves about the unpredictable school year by carefully organizing their school supplies. Another child may take a break from worrying about the Delta variant by getting lost in a book or TikTok video.
What Adults Can Do to Help
Especially in the psychological monsoon of the pandemic, many young people will not be able to regulate their emotions all by themselves. They might pout in silence and need encouragement to open up, or they might be desperate and need support to regain their composure. For the times when adults need to step in as emotional civil engineers, here are some tried and tested methods that can help teenagers express or contain their feelings.
To get feelings flowing:
Get out there and go When a teen seems to have shut down, you can let their emotions run free by walking or driving a car together. Teens are more likely to share what’s important to them when they don’t need to make eye contact.
Keep her away from the emotional hot seat Young people can also be more communicative if they are not brought to the point. You can start a fruitful, if indirect, conversation by asking a teen what they hear about their classmates’ worries rather than asking direct questions about their own. And some adolescents will share a lot about their thoughts, but only if you ask via text.
To prevent emotional flooding:
Serve as a sandbag In adolescence, short dips are to be expected. Teenagers sometimes seem to drown in emotion because the emotion-generating part of their brain can easily outperform their ability to keep perspective. By maintaining a calm and patient presence, parents can often help an overstimulated teen gain control over a wave of stress. When adults offer their quiet company or gently ask the teen if they want some fresh air, they instill confidence that high emotional waters will usually recede on their own.
Try distraction Sometimes teenagers need help just to stop focusing on a problem. Talking about what’s wrong can bring relief to some teens, but in other cases rumination only makes them feel worse. When a teen becomes agonized from thinking about a problem, distraction is a perfectly appropriate and healthy tactic. A parent might suggest that the teen put the topic aside, do something fun or useful, and then maybe come back to the topic at a later time.
When should you be concerned?
As long as teenagers can express and hold back emotions in a way that provides relief and does no harm, you can be confident that they are effectively regulating their feelings. This is true even when they need adult support – and even when they are often upset. So how do you know if it’s time to worry about a teen’s emotional health?
Simply put, emotions shouldn’t control a young person’s life. Teens who are so fearful that they cannot do the things they want or need to do – such as enjoying time with friends or focusing on schoolwork – should seek professional help. Likewise, teenagers who are depressed or dark in mood, or pose a threat to themselves or others, need and deserve the care of healthcare professionals.
You should also keep an eye on teenagers whose emotions seem hopelessly pent up. Persistent refusal to express feelings or actively work to inhibit them has been linked to poor mental and physical health outcomes in adolescents. If you don’t have a healthy way to alleviate the almost universal hardship caused by the pandemic or rely on substances to numb your insides, it’s time to see a doctor.
It is an understatement to say that life under Covid-19 has been a long, stormy season for teens and those who care for them. As we enter this new, still challenging phase of the pandemic, families can comfort themselves with the knowledge that the goal is not, and never has been, to banish uncomfortable feelings. The aim is for teenagers to be able to regulate their emotions, sometimes alone, sometimes with the help of loving adults.