I have been getting lots of questions from parents and caregivers about how to help tweens and teens handle online schooling, social distancing or exam cancellations. Based on my conversations with teens and parents around the globe, I have put together some top tips (and a very simple way to remember them). Recall that old Aretha Franklin song? When it comes to COVID-19 and young people, let’s have a little RESPECT: Routines–maintain it, Expectations–lower them, Strengths–build them, Positive Behavior–model it, Engagement–encourage it, Cheers(or praise)-give it and Technology–embrace it.
· Routines –Maintaining routines and schedules can provide tweens and teens a sense of stability. In our house, we made schedules with our pre-teens, which include online school hours, set mealtimes, exercise, small chores and free time. We have had our share of drama, but it does provide a framework for the day. We also realized that our 10-year-old son needs more hands-on support because he has less classroom-like group video schooling than his older brother. This means that my husband and I have been taking turns sitting with him for a few hours each morning and playing ‘teacher’. For teens, consider their need for independence and creating their own path for learning, but also encourage them to get physical activity and break large assignments into smaller ones.
· Expectations –Your pre-teen or teen will not be working at the same pace or intensity as a regular school day. They may also have to deal with cancellations in standardized exams or other scheduled activities, such as athletic competitions and performances – all very frustrating experiences. So, now is the time to lower your expectations about academic accomplishments. Remember everyone is in a similar situation. Ultimately, we need to prioritize their social-emotional health over top grades. Consider this every day.
· Strengths –Every pre-teen or teen has natural interests, whether it is music, arts or writing. Building on their strengths, helps kids develop resilience to handle challenges. One of my 10-year old son’s friends is a budding illustrator and spends time each day drawing elaborate cartoon strips. Another of their my sons’ friends created wonderful videos using i stop motion while our oldest son is working on making a model airplane. Finally, how many of you have heard the phrase “I’m bored” at home recently? Remember encouraging a little non-digital boredom is a great way to promote creativity and self-sufficiency.
· Positive behaviors –Kids learn from adults, also how to react to new challenges. We need to model positive ways to stay healthy and handle uncertainty, including exercising regularly, eating healthy foods to boost immunity, staying connected with loved ones and being kind to others regardless of their background or appearance. In our house, we pulled out board games (Pandemic and Monopoly are favorites), made fun meals together, created a Netflix list (we loved the 1950’s classic 12 Angry Men) and are having regular calls with family around the globe. If permitted, get outdoors and bike, run or walk as a family while keeping distance from others. If that doesn’t work, try some yoga poses or using a mindfulness app at home. Think of ways to give back to your community and provide outreach: for example, helping a neighbor that is elderly, donating items to a food bank or buying gift certificates to support a local business. Finally, adults need to limit their own media use lest they themselves get too anxious amid the barrage of negative news. And, of course: no devices in the bedroom at night.
· Engagement –Remind children and teens that they have the responsibility to protect themselves and others like their grandparents and elderly neighbors by practicing proper hand washing, sneezing into your elbow and maintaining social distancing. Even infected teens who do not show any symptoms can still transmit the virus to others. (There have also been cases of teens getting very ill which means they themselves are at risk too). Talk to kids about the risks of meeting friends to hang out. Ultimately our obligation as parents and caregivers is to teach social behavior and to keep our teens and our community healthy.
· Cheers or Praise –According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, we need to make sure we uphold things and praise them when they do things right. All too often we focus on what our kids are doing wrong. If your teen or pre-teen set the table, cooked a dish, picked up their dirty laundry, wrote a funny poem or did something else positive this week, don’t forget to give them credit where it’s due.
· Technology –We need to encourage kids to keep in touch with classmates and friends via WhatsApp, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. In fact, regular use of technology has shown in places like Hong Kong and China to be very beneficial in maintaining social connections and emotional well-being. Don’t be too strict during this time on limiting phone or Internet use.
What we know from countries which have experienced coronavirus earlier and longer than others is that things will not normalize for weeks to months to come. We are slowly preparing for a new normal in terms of social relationships, technology use or online schooling. If your teen isn’t doing anything dangerous, it may be best to ignore the off-hand comments, door slams and eye rolls. However, if there are changes in eating or sleeping habits, increased irritability or sadness, the complete inability to get off devices or the need for constant reassurance, these may be signs that the child is struggling and needs support. Try talking to your pre-teen or teen about their concerns and fears or get another adult or mentor involved. If these don’t help, it may be time to reach out to your health provider or a counselor for additional help. Many are now providing telephone and electronic consults. Hopefully, with a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, we can help our children prepare for what’s still to come.
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