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The teenage years are a difficult time for parents and their children, even when there isn’t a pandemic. COVID-19 has intensified all of our parent-teen interactions by introducing yet another big safety concern and keeping us in closer proximity than ever before. As cooler weather closes in and COVID cases rise locally and nationwide, it may be time to reset this important relationship in a way that will increase our chances of keeping our bodies, our minds, our relationships and our communities healthy.

Get yourself in order. Before you approach your teen, it’s a good idea to ensure that you are meeting your own needs and setting a good example. Are you masking in public, distancing from those outside your household, keeping social engagements outdoors, and washing your hands frequently? Are you following a healthy routine, including time for self-care? Are you limiting your exposure to troubling news and relying on good sources of information? Are you getting enough sleep and following a healthy diet? Do you have and use a good outlet for your COVID thoughts and feelings? The answers to these questions don’t necessarily have to be “yes.” Admitting where you can improve is a great place to start.

Ask your teen how they are. It can be off-handed and casual. No matter what, listen, reaffirm, and ask follow-up questions that show that you are listening. (This can be really difficult if we are overly focused on our own needs, which is why it is so important to get yourself together before approaching them.) Reserve judgement, even if they share that they have done something risky. They might have serious worries, but you are never going to hear them unless you stop directing and start validating.

If you get in deep, minimize disruptions, give them your complete attention, and take your time. Follow all of the potential threads of conversation and let them get all the way through what’s on their mind. Giving them the opportunity to share openly, even on its own, can be helpful in working through heavy feelings. If you happen to get unavoidably interrupted, be sure to follow up and try to pick up where you left off.

Account for their friends. If your child has close friends, they can be the most influential people in their lives. Missing the connection with friends could be a major source of grief. Facilitate safe outdoor meetings with their friends. And ask your child how their friends are doing. They could be worried about their friends or could have had a disagreement with them. Again reserve judgement, listen, validate, and echo what they have said, so that they know you are listening.

Balance inclusion and privacy. Invite your teen to take a walk or show you the next level on their video game. Leverage their interests to do something together. Understand, though, that teens need privacy, too. Don’t be alarmed if they shut you down.

Ease up on the things you can. Give teens more control over clothing choices, what they choose to eat, or how they spend their time. But don’t let up when it comes to knowing where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing. When you have to put your foot down for safety reasons, tell them why. For instance, “I will not drive you to Bella’s house, because it is too cold for you to stay outside and that’s not safe.” Offer an alternative, like a Netflix watch party or some other way to connect.

When the time is right, share your feelings. Once your teen has shared how they are doing with you, you can share with them too. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Be fallible. In short, be a real person, not an “authority.” Tell them what worries you, things that involve them, maybe, but also things that don’t. Too often, we put up a front. As long as you don’t overload them, it’s helpful for teens to know that everyone is wrestling with these issues.

Get help when you need it. Frustration and sadness are understandable. But if your child seems to have lost interest in the things they used to enjoy or if they seem more irritable for reasons you can’t determine, it’s time to raise concern. They might be feeling depressed and need more help than you can offer. Call your pediatrician, United Counseling Service at 802-442-5491, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

By opening the channels of communication between you and your teen, you are more likely to develop the type of relationship you need to keep your teen, your family, and your community safe during this health crisis. The important habits you build now will be a benefit throughout both your lives.

Meghan Gunn, MD, is the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.


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