Here’s the top line: parenting a teen in this post-quarantine moment can feel like a hopeless exercise in frustration.
We can't decide if Covid is driving our kids to self-medicate or keeping them away from drugs. The CDC reports that teen emergency room visits for mental health complaints have increased by 34 percent during the year of isolation. And according to The Daily, parents are hiding in closets and bathrooms just to have a moment of privacy and decompression.
Meanwhile, if you’re like me, you’re cohabitating with a sullen adolescent whose idea of high school is to lie in bed in front of a teacher on Zoom, his camera off, playing video games or Snap Chatting friends rather than paying attention in class, much less participating. And now that summer is here, unstructured days and social media-binge nights mean…what, exactly, in terms of a properly maturing teenager? Am I consigned to a future of anger directed at my Cruella-esque request to walk the dog or load the dishwasher? I'm at the end of my rope—and I'm not sure how to tie a knot and hang on.
After months and months and…months of working from home next to my teenager, I felt hopeless and frankly, perplexed at how I ended up here. I tried to be grateful for our health and stability, but instead it just felt like one giant pain in the neck. And besides, I was frightened—at a time when teens are biologically set to mature independently from their parents, how was our current situation going to set him up for a successful adulthood? And finally, I felt like there had to be something wrong with me, since I couldn’t seem to intuit what to do to support my child.
What my particular home hellscape devolved into was a teen who stayed up until all hours playing video games, then was hostile in the morning when he could even wake up for class. He seemed depressed when he wasn’t agitated, with mood swings that veered between bouts of anger and bursts of inexplicable elation. And as a single mom, it was getting harder and harder to convince my volatile teen of the importance of anything.
My life started to feel like the recent meme-inspiring New Yorker cartoon, No Worries if Not!. After all, who wants to complain about their hormonal teenager, when people are dying and the globe is warming and everyone’s got problems, right?
Well, yes and no. See, while everyone has problems, I firmly believe there’s no merit in stuffing your own just because they’re not as urgent as the open arterial bleed some others might be experiencing. Plus, if you don’t address said problems, the issues are only going to rear in more profound ways. That was my experience, when, by the end of the year it was a toss-up as to what was worse: my son’s grades or his behavior towards me.
That’s when, in desperation, I reached out to his guidance counselor over Zoom, and was shocked at how much I needed the reassurance she gave me. She explained that she was seeing so many teens and their families completely on edge, cranky and exhausted with everything. Teachers too, were burnt out—everyone involved with online learning was giving 10 percent, rather than the rah-rah 110 percent we’d been expected to strive for. Her advice? To prioritize family unity rather than micro-managing the Google Classroom (where my son was known to occasionally attach a blank document that, at a glance, looked like a completed assignment). Wait. I had permission to care about his feelings and not his performance or compliance? This was liberating.
After receiving this validation from the counselor, I started getting real with other parents, and I learned that their home lives were no rose bed either. But like all of us, they were trying out creative solutions. There was the mom who used a therapy model based on learning emotional regulation and distress tolerance. Another who hired a personal trainer to work with her son so he could get his energy out. A third who passed along the name of a city sports league that was starting back up soon.
After gleaning all this knowledge, I followed some advice, while ignoring what didn’t make sense for our family. We have some active outdoor exercise planned for this summer, and I’ve taken a parenting class (admittedly, on Zoom) in which I was gently coached on “meeting a child where they are at.” And at the end, I’m left feeling actually hopeful about the future. I’ve set some longterm goals on boundaries to uphold and expectations to set, and already reaped some surprisingly rewarding connection with my kid by regularly sitting down to eat with him at the dinner table without screens, and watching sports with him on television. He’s feeling hopeful, too…at least, from what I can get him to talk about. (He’s still a teenage boy, after all.)
So, at the risk of being basic and obvious, I want to offer a sincere and simple three-word salve for my—and maybe your—family’s pandemic-era crises. Ask. For. Help. Ask everywhere you can think of, and follow up. Don’t edit yourself or be ashamed and don’t give up if the person you reach out to doesn’t have immediate solutions. School counselor, therapist, next-door neighbor who has survived similar issues…one of them is going to have a new idea for you to try. After all, There is a crack in everything, Leonard Cohen sang, that’s how the light gets in.