Communicating with teens during COVID

With much of school, work, and play occurring at home during the pandemic, families are spending much more time together than they normally would—posing new challenges for teen-parent relationships, already some of the most strained.

Psychologists with expertise on parenting, as well as those studying family communication around race, sex, mental health, and media use, offer insights on how to improve dynamics between adolescents and their caregivers.

Broadly, establishing autonomy is one of the key developmental tasks of adolescents, but the pandemic has limited opportunities to do so, for instance, by shifting adolescent learning from school to home and confining college students to their parents’ houses as many campuses remain shut down. A common challenge for families is to balance teens’ need for autonomy with other concerns, such as their safety, said Judith Smetana, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies development and family relationships.

But even the way we define safety has changed this year—and parents may place a stronger emphasis on adherence to public health guidance than do teens. In any case, Smetana said proactive discussion can help set appropriate boundaries, because research has found that parents tend to be most effective with a so-called “authoritative” parenting style, which includes teens in discussions about rules and expectations and provides explanations for why those rules are important.

Smetana and her colleagues have found that disagreement about the bounds of parental authority is where adolescent-parent conflict usually happens ( Journal of Research on Adolescence , Vol. 26, No. 2, 2016).

When conflict does occur, psychologists suggest a few strategies that may help, including encouraging teens to seek space or privacy and finding alternative ways to connect with their parents, such as texting or exchanging notes in a shared journal, suggested Mary Fristad, PhD, ABPP, the director of academic affairs and research development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Big Lots Behavioral Health Services in Columbus, Ohio. Pandemic-driven restrictions may mean parents are spending far more time than they normally would with formerly overscheduled teens, but that added time can be seen as a chance to engage in rapport-building activities with your teen, for instance, walking the dog or cooking together.

“Take this as an opportunity to spend quality time with teens and have fun,” said psychologist Laura Padilla-Walker, PhD, a professor in the Department of Family Life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “My teens are much more likely to talk with me when we’re snowshoeing than when I’m sitting across the table from them, staring them down.”

Monitoring media

Screen time among both children and adults has skyrocketed during the pandemic, partly because digital and social media are now pivotal for home schooling, entertainment, and socializing with friends and family, said psychologist Patti Valkenburg, PhD, a professor of youth, media, and society at the University of Amsterdam.

“The quality and the context of media use—rather than the quantity of screen time—is an increasing focus for both researchers and parents,” Valkenburg said. “For example, do teens turn to the screen to procrastinate? Or do they use it to relax after finishing their homework?”

Engaging with other teens on social media or multiplayer online video games can help adolescents develop identity, build relational skills, and explore their sexuality—all key parts of achieving personal autonomy, Valkenburg said. This is especially true during the pandemic, when other social opportunities are limited, but excessive use can interfere with school, sleep, and mental well-being. Rather than imposing unilateral restrictions on smartphone use, psychological research shows that being supportive about reasonable amounts of media use and proactively monitoring use can help teens learn to regulate their own behavior, which leads to better outcomes. Proactive monitoring involves setting and, if necessary, adjusting boundaries; co-engaging with media; and communicating about whether media portrayals of things like violence and sex accurately reflect reality.

One study by Padilla-Walker and her colleagues found that teens were less secretive and less aggressive when parents actively monitored and discussed their media use, as opposed to just setting restrictions ( Journal of Social and Personal Relationships , Vol. 37, No. 1, 2020).

“It’s better to keep lines of communication open, because excessive restriction at this age tends to lead to secret keeping,” she said.

Other research shows that proactive monitoring is linked to lower media use and increases in teens’ self-reported prosocial behavior and their capacity to self-regulate ( Journal of Adolescence , Vol. 46, 2016; Journal of Youth and Adolescence , Vol. 47, 2018).

Parents should ask adolescents to agree to usage policies and boundaries before a smartphone or other device is purchased, or before extreme overuse occurs. If a parent did not set limits ahead of time, co-engaging and having discussions about media content can still be helpful. They can also lead by example, modeling how it looks to set and observe boundaries around their own media use. Both strategies can help teens learn to modulate their own behavior, Valkenburg said.

“The regulation of media use can be a struggle, but it is worth the fight,” said Valkenburg. “Helping youth develop healthy media habits…will pay dividends in their later development.”

Checking in on mental health

While Americans across the age spectrum report worsening mental health during the pandemic, teens and young adults face particular challenges, with 43% of Generation Z teens reporting increased stress over the past year ( Stress in America 2020, APA). Teens attribute this uptick to school closures, loss of social interaction, and uncertainty about the future.

“All teenagers are suffering,” said Lisa Damour, PhD, a clinical psychologist who writes a column on parenting for the New York Times . “We simultaneously need to normalize what they are feeling and go out of our way to provide as much support as is absolutely possible.”

That may mean prioritizing empathy and validation over giving advice, said Fristad, including by continuing to acknowledge how difficult this year has been and that it is normal to struggle under such conditions. For parents unsure about how to broach the topic of mental health, Damour recommends paying close attention to their teen’s cues.

“Usually, the teenager will be the one to bring it up—and our job as the parent is not to miss it,” she said.

Teens may talk about a classmate who stopped doing schoolwork or posted on social media about “hitting a wall” during the pandemic, opening the door for a parent to ask how the teen feels about that and what support they need. Adolescents also often express mental health challenges in the form of complaining or frustration, said Damour, for instance by saying they feel down and don’t want to do homework.

“When the overture is a complaint, our instincts can be to try to shut it down,” she said. “But a complaint is an opening, and we should treat it as such.”

Though comprehensive data is not yet available, there are also indicators that teens may face heightened suicide risk during the pandemic. A spike in student suicides in Clark Country, Nevada, has even spurred the county to accelerate its reopening plan for local schools.

Research shows that asking about suicidal thoughts does not increase suicide risk, so parents who are concerned should approach their teens (Dazzi, T., et al., Psychological Medicine , Vol. 44, No. 16, 2014). Be direct and ask if your teen is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, but avoid shaming or criticism, Damour said.

Talking about race and racism

The past year has also brought increasing urgency to the national conversation on racial equity, which families of color in particular are working to navigate.

“Talking about racism is often the most challenging thing for adults and children of color to contend with, mainly because there’s no end in sight,” said psychologist Riana Elyse Anderson, PhD, an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

In families of color, the racial socialization process starts early, usually by addressing issues with school-age children, such as bullying or comments about skin color. As kids enter adolescence, parents can increasingly instill messages about racial pride, the importance of diversity, and barriers that teens of color may face as they move through the world, said Isha Metzger, PhD, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Georgia.

Metzger and her colleagues created a Racial Trauma Guide to help Black families navigate those talks, for example what a teen should do if they get stopped by police. She recommends that parents orient their discussions around current events, such as media reports of police brutality.

“If you see something on the news or social media, it’s really important to assume that your teen has seen it as well,” she said.

A parent might point to online discussions about social justice and anti-Black racism, then ask their teen what they’re seen and how they feel about it. That discussion can be a gateway to sharing coping skills for teenagers to process feelings of anger and hopelessness, as well as to channel that frustration into prosocial activities, such as organizing a peaceful protest in their community, Metzger suggests.

The Racial Trauma Guide also provides ally resources, which can help White parents talk to their teens about White privilege, racial bias, and the importance of engaging in anti-racism work.

To further help Black parents and their teens have an ongoing, open dialogue, Anderson and her colleagues created EMBRace—Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race—a five-session intervention designed for Black families that uses strategies from trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy to foster conversations about racial identity and bias. Parents and children first meet separately with a clinician, then come together for group sessions that focus on how to recognize racial discrimination and handle the resulting stress.

A key part of the program asks parents and children to roleplay various coping strategies. For example, a parent may list specific ways they will support their child in responding to racial discrimination from a teacher at school. A pilot test of EMBRace found that it helped both parents and teens cope with stress related to race ( Journal of Black Psychology , Vol. 44, No. 1, 2018).

In addition to helping teens deal with racial stress, EMBRace also helps parents initiate conversations about racial identity and pride, which is an important part of healthy racial identity development, said Shawn C. T. Jones, PhD, an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Resilience and resistance should also be part of the narrative in Black families—not just oppression,” he said.

Bringing an open mind to sex discussions

Sex and gender identity are other central aspects of the teenage experience that parents often feel ill-equipped to address, Padilla-Walker said. A recent study she led found that teens continue to report very few conversations about sex with their parents, including around sexual consent ( The Journal of Sex Research , Vol. 57, No. 9, 2020). (See more about psychologists’ research on sex and porn literacy for teens in the March Monitor .)

“My advice is to keep talking, to make these conversations a regular part of discussions with your children,” Padilla-Walker said. “And be open and willing to discuss anything they need answers to. If they don’t ask you, they’ll be asking friends or the media.”

For example, parents might point out scenes in movies or books that exemplify healthy or unhealthy relationships, such as a man kissing or touching a woman without her permission. Parents can also address values around sex and sexuality in small ways throughout everyday life, such as a comment about body image on a magazine cover or a chat about contraception if a teen shares that a classmate is pregnant.

“Children often pick up more from these small conversations or comments than they ever would from a single ‘big talk’ about sexuality,” Padilla-Walker said.

Other research shows that parents tend to bring gendered assumptions to conversations with today’s progressive teens—ones that can weaken the quality of the support they provide.

“Adults have biased expectations of the type of psychosocial stressors they believe their teenagers should be having based on their gender,” said Debra Garcia, PhD, a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles.

In a study presented at APA2020, Garcia showed stories about stressful experiences written by teens to 113 adults and asked them to rate whether each statement described a masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral problem. Adults misidentified 68% of narratives written by teenage boys as “feminine stressors” and 44% of girls’ narratives as “masculine stressors.” The biggest mistakes were made on stories about identity development, such as ethnic identity or sexual orientation, and friendships. Garcia said that because of these errors, communication between teens and their parents is suffering.

“If parents can reflect on their own gender biases before entering a potentially sensitive conversation with their teen, they can approach the conversation with increased empathy and provide advisement and support of greater quality,” she said.

Further reading

How to discuss race with Black teens and their families
APA, 2021

Ask Lisa: The psychology of parenting
Damour, L. & Ninan, R. (Hosts). Audio podcast, 2020-present

Plugged in: How media attract and affect youth
Valkenburg, P. M., & Piotrowski, J. T., Yale University Press, 2017

Adolescent-parent relationships: Progress, processes, and prospects
Smetana, J. G., & Rote, W. M., Annual Review of Developmental Psychology , 2019