The teenage years are a difficult time for children — and parents — even in the best of times. During the global pandemic, it’s been particularly difficult. During their teen years, children strive to be independent and typically prefer spending time with their peers over family. COVID-19 has severely restricted their ability to do either, resulting in more clashes with parents as tough decisions are made. Parents may find themselves making decisions out of fear as they try to help their children under these extraordinary circumstances.

“Most of the time we make decisions from fear — like they are going to fall behind in school or they are not going to get into college. We start to enable our kids instead of empowering them,” says Candice Till-Feinberg, Psy.D., CEO at ROWI Teen & Parent Wellness Centers and author of No Parent Left Behind. “The best parenting decision is to allow them to fail, allow them to struggle so that they learn from their mistakes, especially at a younger age when the stakes aren’t as costly as when they are trying to get into college or are in college.”

It’s more important than ever to make good parenting decisions when children are feeling isolated and anxious. It can help strengthen the quality of your relationship, encourage your child to think independently and build their identity. Here are six tips to foster your teen’s development, keep the lines of communication open and help your teen manage their anxiety about school, their social life and their future.

Maintain structure

During these uncertain times, one of the best things parents can do for themselves and their children is to maintain a schedule and structure. “If we don’t have to do something, we won’t,” says Till-Feinberg. “If I don’t have to be at the gym for a scheduled class, I’ll sit at the kitchen table for an hour and scroll through social media.” By creating and following a schedule, teens can continue to move forward and stay motivated. Continue to have them shower and get ready for school even if it’s on Zoom. Keep consistent with when they go to sleep and wake up. Put family dinner on the schedule to create a sense of normalcy and togetherness. If you are the parent who has scheduling down to a science, maybe allow some free time for creativity and boredom. Use the gift of time the pandemic has given us to teach our kids the lost art of daydreaming.

Stay calm

If you’re feeling anxious, your teenager is more likely to feel anxious, too. The pandemic has created a lot of fear in adults and children alike. As best you can, normalize this experience for them and let them know that “this too shall pass.” It’s important for parents to understand that their children are taking cues from them on how to respond to all the uncertainty, and modeling love-based decisions versus fear-based ones will help ease your teen’s anxieties. Often its hard to tell the difference between love and fear. “For example, if your kid wants to go to a party right now, you could say ‘no because it’s dangerous, and I don’t want you to get sick.’ Or you could say ‘yes because you’ll hate me if I don’t let you go, and I don’t want you to hate me,’” says Till-Feinberg. “Saying no regardless of how mad they will be is more out of love.”

The best parenting decision is to allow kids to fail, allow them to struggle so that they learn from their mistakes, especially at a younger age when the stakes aren’t as costly as when they are in college. ”
— Candice Till-Feinberg, Psy.D., CEO, ROWI Teen & Parent Wellness Centers share twitter

Let them try

More important than wanting your teen to have the best opportunities is for them to feel good about themselves. To do that, parents need to allow their teens to experiment, fail and make decisions based on their own values. If your child asks to go to a party, have them go through the pro’s and con’s and come to the decision with your guidance.  Instead of doing everything for them, which can erode at your child’s self-esteem, prevent them from learning necessary skills and stop them from having the confidence to try other things in the future. Use this time together to teach them as many life skills as you can.

“You parent them in the place where they need your support, not where they don’t,” says Till-Feinberg. “If they need your help, help. But if they can do it on their own, let them do it and let them maybe not do it as well as you would have.”

Experiment and take note

“The only way I know how to build self-esteem is by making choices that are in line with your values and that make you feel good about yourself,” says Till-Feinberg. Teach your children to reflect on how they felt “the last time” they did something. For example if they stayed up late and felt tired the next day, do they want to feel that way tomorrow if they do it again.

Ask about their likes and dislikes and experiences to help them identify what they value. Did they enjoy it? Will they do it again? Did it make them feel good or bad about themselves? They will learn to trust their feelings and make decisions from a more confident place. While they are feeling isolated at home right now, they may need a little extra push; however, their involvement in activities whether with family or friends, online or in person, will help them feel more connected and happier.

Engage with their ideas

The main job of a teenager is identity formation. It’s a time to try on and ponder new identities: they may want to join the Peace Corps or become a vegan. Many parents shut their children down over these extreme ideas. Instead, try to understand their perspective, get curious and ask questions about their ideas. For example, if your daughter says she wants a tattoo, you can respond with questions, such as “What kind of design? Where would you want it?” rather than exclaiming, “Over my dead body!”

“You’re not endorsing it; you’re not shutting them down. You’re getting to know them; you’re allowing them to express themselves,” says Till-Feinberg. “There’s a reason kids won’t talk to their parents, and it has to do with how they’ve been responded to in the past.” Keep the dialogue open by not shutting them down to hard and fast. Give them space to explore their feeling about this year without judgement or criticism.

Support their choices

The pandemic has provided a wonderful opportunity to get to know our children better. Many parents have an idea of who they want their child to be and what they should do but that doesn’t mean it’s what your child wants.  Spend some time getting to know what they want and how you can support them. “Letting them find their own path and be who they are, getting out of their way is the best thing we can do for our kids,” says Till-Feinberg. Support them in their own choices. If they want to be a vegan, how can you make sure they get enough nutrition? If they don’t want to attend college, how can you help them find success and fulfillment without that degree?

“It’s not easy when you have a kid who’s very different from you,” says Till-Feinberg. “These are all things parents have to come to terms with on your own versus trying to make your kid into somebody they are not. Letting go of expectations is hard. That’s a loss for a parent. But realistically you can’t change who they are.”