Social distancing and remote learning are things we never talked about in February. By mid-March, they’d become imbedded in our minds forever, now our reality for over a month as society deals with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is a new frontier even for adults, so asking middle school, high school and college students to roll with this is no easy thing. Recognizing the need for guidance and support, Scarsdale’s PTA set up a Zoom panel discussion earlier this month. For 80 minutes, local experts offered strategies to help families cope.
After all, that’s what this is about. There are no easy fixes and each family, family member and situation has its own challenges.
The focus during “Keeping Scarsdale teens well in the age of remote learning, social distancing and pandemics” was not on what’s good, bad or indifferent with e-learning, but the well-being of students cooped up during quarantine.
“School is so much more than grades and classwork — it’s about high fives in the hallway and sitting down for lunch and even goofing off and laughing,” Scarsdale High School Assistant Principal Dr. Christopher Griffin said. “We all know for teenagers that is absolutely necessary social interaction. It’s how they’re nourished socially.”
Dealing with “disengagement” and “sadness” are key issues for Griffin as parents work to “identify” and “address” their kids’ needs.
Addressing the middle school crowd, Scarsdale Middle School Principal Meghan Troy noted how important being social between classes, in the hallways, at lunch, in group work and the playing fields is to the growth of adolescents.
“So for every person, adults included, these interactions are missing in all of our lives, but for our middle school children these peer relationships are even more vital to their overall well-being,” said Troy, who is learning to cope with these issues as the mom of a sixth-grader of her own.
Dr. Elliot Cohen, the district’s director of psychology, urged parents to keep everything in perspective and understand and “accept that our children are experiencing a range of reactions.” Those reactions can include relief, stress, frustration, sadness, anxiety and boredom. Not to be lost in the shuffle is the loss of independence students are feeling. The freedoms they were used to in school and their social lives have now been taken away as they are — or should be — mostly homebound.
“If you are experiencing this with your child, accept it for what it is,” Cohen said. “It’s understandable for there to be a difference in their typical developmental progression as their bodies, minds and hearts are adjusting to this, just like us.”
The parents, he said, need to set the tone and “help them regain their balance. He compared the flexibility needed in this situation to bridges that “are built to sway in strong winds,” saying, “so are we.” He added, “Flexibility is a goal to strive toward and will help teens build the resilience skills that they will take with them after this is in the rearview mirror.”
Parents should neither be too hard on themselves or on their kids. “Accept that this might not be mom and child’s best work right now,” Cohen said. “We still try to do a good job, but this is a time when you can cut yourself some slack.”
It’s important to acknowledge feelings through listening and allowing kids to “express and feel hurt” and validating their feelings, Cohen said, adding that you can’t just “swoop in” and fix the situation, as much as you might want to. Excessive anxiety should be managed to a “moderate amount,” because that will help the students learn to manage that themselves.
Structure can help, so he advised keeping a sleep schedule, a bathing routine, getting dressed each day, having a proper diet, remaining active and getting sunlight. Students working remotely have been given mindfulness exercises that involve breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided visual imagery. They should “use what works for them,” Cohen said.
Dr. Paul Donahue, psychologist and director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, referred to the lack of “togetherness” as “gut-wrenching” for teens. “I really want to encourage us all to try to have empathy for our kids, even when they are being very difficult,” he said.
It was one thing when everyone thought this was going to last a couple of weeks or a month, but, said Donahue, “It’s hard to deny the reality of how serious this is right now.”
Parents should be having “hard discussions” with their kids about why they can’t bike close to friends, can’t see a boyfriend or girlfriend. The “brunt” of the “anger, frustration, upset” is absorbed by the parents.
“Kids are also angry at the loss of control over their lives just at a time when they’re starting to feel more independent and they thought they had a little bit more control,” he said. “Now that’s been taken away from them.”
Grief was a key talking point for Donahue. Whether it’s the loss of normal routine, typical interaction with friends, not having sports, religious celebrations, birthdays and more, students are grieving the indirect effects of coronavirus. It’s especially hard on seniors in high school and college who are missing out on rituals like prom, internships, celebrations and graduation ceremonies. College kids’ summer camp and job options are in question, and they are worrying what the fall might look like.
There’s so much going on in the world that we want our kids to be aware of, but we have to let the kids feel badly about what’s happening to them, Donahue said.
“It is a real loss for them and we don’t want to compound that by making them feeling guilty or bad or ashamed for feeling what they’re feeling,” he said. “It’s OK to feel badly about your personal losses, and yes, we want to be aware of everything that’s going on in the world, but it’s OK to be struggling.”
With all that, Donahue noted a silver lining. Families are spending more time together between dinners, biking, walking, playing basketball in the driveway, baking and playing games. While getting the older kids out of their rooms can sometimes be a challenge, “I think we want to try to hold on to that… In terms of face-to-face socializing, we’re what they’ve got right now.”
Building upon some of New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s messages, Donahue urged parents to be role models and show how resilient they can be. “We’re going to get through this as families holding together,” Cuomo said. “We’re going to get through this as a community.”
Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service Executive Director Jay Genova, LCSW, said that even though the group’s doors closed last month, “all services remain fully operation. Different, but fully operational.” SEFCS works with residents of all ages.
“Teens do not live in a vacuum,” Genova said. “Teens live in a family. And a family is a complicated system of interactions. What affects the individual is ultimately going to affect the family members and what affects the family members is ultimately going to affect the individual. That’s kind of an inescapable fact.”
When teens act out or show anger, parents need to “step back,” instead of reacting defensively or returning that anger, Genova said. This is a time of “understanding and compassion.”
Teaching kids coping skills — and showing them substance abuse is not an appropriate way to handle stressful situations — is a parent’s job, he said, noting, there’s no recreating a typical school day for the foreseeable future, which will lead kids to struggle and be bored.
“Coping is learning to tolerate [bad feelings] and just tolerating is coping,” Genova said. “I think it’s been said that there may be a tendency or an urge to fix. Our children are experiencing losses, whether that’s the loss of their day, their routine, things that they were looking forward to. We’re not going to be able to fix those for them, but what we can do is we can acknowledge… and even share in these experiences.”
Q&A topic highlights
- Some parents have not been keeping their kids socially distant, which angers other members of the community and makes some teens feel like they are being punished by not being allowed to go out.
Donahue said he noticed the group gatherings go down as the weeks in March progressed. “I think the message is getting out there,” he said. “As parents it’s important that we set a community standard. Some of that standard comes from the authorities, some of that comes from school, but I think as parents talking to each other, and again modeling through each other that we’re not seeing our good friends, we’re not going for coffee with our friends, we’re not walking around the village freely — we’re trying to keep a social distance at cost to ourselves. It’s hard.”
- Some parents are having trouble getting kids to bed and to stick to routines, as some kids were staying up all night playing video games and waking up late if they didn’t have an early class.
Cohen said a “hybrid solution” — a compromise and flexibility — would be in order. Kids no longer need to be up as early for school, so there’s no reason they should wake up too early as long as they have gotten proper sleep and gone to bed at a reasonable time, likely by midnight for the older high schoolers. A 16-year-old, he said, needs around nine hours of sleep. He urges a conversation between parents and their teens.
“Parents need to remember that the typical middle school and high school schedule that we’re normally under is not really in sync with an adolescent’s circadian rhythm,” he said. “One of the silver linings actually of the COVID school shutdown is that it actually offers the potential for adolescents to live a life that is more in sync with their natural rhythm and therefore can enable them to get the amount of sleep their bodies and brains need, sleep that our regular school schedule actually denies them.”
- Parents worry about teens who are less social to begin with and really needed that interaction at school. Loneliness is a major concern for parents.
Genova said maintaining connections is important and it’s all about balance with screen time and electronic devices, but that when it comes to this situation, the more kids can communicate in a positive way the better.
He also noted that some students might be enjoying the break from feeling the pressure of having to be social.
“For some kids the pressure to be social has been very great and many are feeling some sense of relief right now,” he said. “Not that I am suggesting that anyone choose isolation or loneliness but, if they are, we need to support them and give them strategies in which they can maintain connections.”
- One parent believes his/her senior is depressed for the first time at the loss of senior year, won’t go outside as much, is less likely to laugh and is sleeping a lot more, leading to a decline in academics.
Cohen said there was no way to diagnose a student from afar, but that any parent who feels there might be an issue should get in touch with a mental health professional to explore the situation.
- One freshman asked her parents why she should continue to work so hard if there won’t be a payoff. Seniors are also coping with the loss of experiences.
Donahue rattled off a list of what kids will be missing, but said that parents of middle school and early high school students can remind their kids they will have more opportunities in the future to participate in events.
“Learning to work hard, learning to have good routines, good study habits, those are the building blocks to success and resilience,” Donahue said. “They’re not just about getting good grades and getting through the school year. These are building blocks for their lives and it’s hard for a ninth grader to appreciate that. I think we really want to tell them they’re in it for the long run and these are important internal skills they’re building.”
For seniors, Donahue said, “It’s a little different. They have a right to feel really sad about the loss of rituals, the loss of transition, and a lot of the seniors spent so much time getting into college and now they’re facing this big separation…” He urged parents to let the kids know that when it’s safe they will “do everything we can to celebrate and make the most of it, while at the same time acknowledging that this is really hard to not have their time in the sun.”
Like many people adapted to the Passover and Easter celebration changes, Genova said, “On the other side of sadness comes hope. When we start to build hope our brains start to get creative again.”
- What about the college kids who are all of a sudden back home unable to have the kind of freedoms they had at school?
Cohen said he has a “full house of that right now,” so he can relate as everyone is trying to be flexible with work, relaxation and eating spaces and the challenge of trying to “work around each other.”
He called it a two-way street: “We’re not used to having them around, but they’re not used to us being around so much,” Cohen said. “It’s really an adjustment on both sides. I think having some clear conversations helps, being honest and speaking your mind, trying not to take outbursts too personally, because they can happen.” He added, “If we frontload some of this stuff it will go better. And that’s true for everything else.”
- Many parents are not only dealing with their children, but with their own parents.
Genova suggested that anyone in the “sandwich generation” facing the double-whammy of taking care of people who might be resistant on both ends of the spectrum should seek support and reassurance from a spouse, friends other family members. “What I would say for Scarsdale parents is that if you’re not already in a parent support group, I encourage you to reach out to Lauren Pomerantz and to see about availability and also I would encourage you specifically for the issues of aging parents to reach out to our aging in place coordinator [Maryellen Saenger], who can probably speak with you more about strategies to deal with aging parents,” he said.
- With the uncertainty of the situation — is this weeks, months? — parents wanted to know what to focus on with kids at certain ages.
Genova said conversations should be “developmentally appropriate,” should feature a “balance between honest answers and hope” and should not include any promises. A good approach for any age is “taking this in pieces,” according to Genova. “If we’re looking at this as an 18-month stretch, that’s going to feel really overwhelming to everyone. I’m not sure that’s beneficial to anyone.”
Cohen said, “Say what you do know and admit what you don’t know.” He also said that age is less of a factor in deciding what to tell kids than their “cognitive and social-emotional level,” adding, “The simple rule of thumb to figure out how much detail to provide to a kid is really going to be based on the depth and the level of their questions. You give them basic information … Use your child’s questions to determine the level of depth of the answers you need to give. If you have multiple age kids in your family you’re going to have multiple conversations at multiple depth levels and you should.”
When kids talk to Donahue about the stress of junior year he gives them a piece of advice that he urges people to use now: “My advice is junior year is like every other year — you take it week to week. You get through the week and then the next week. I feel the stressful situation we’re all in now, I still think that advice holds. Let’s get through each week.”