In our last article, we examined the detrimental effects of social isolation and loneliness on adolescent boys.
The TLDR (too long; didn’t read) summary: our boys are not OK.
While we wait for vaccines and herd immunity to put an end to COVID-19 and social distancing, here are six suggestions to help you and the boys you care for manage the harmful effects of social isolation:
1) Be Empathetic
First, validate their loss. Our boys need to hear us say that however they are feeling is OK. They may need you to help them find the words to express what they’ve been going through.
If they do talk, validate them with empathetic phrases such as “That must be awful” or “I can see why that makes you upset.”
It may help to tell them how you are feeling, that you too are sad or mad, frustrated or fearful. We can acknowledge that it’s really hard, not fair, and generally stinks.
You may be tempted to try and “fix it,” tell them to “suck it up,” or remind them that others have it worse.
“Anything that minimizes what teens are feeling is not helpful,” says Terrill Bravender, M.D., M.P.H, chief of adolescent medicine at Michigan Medicine. “The key is for parents to provide empathetic listening for their teens, and also emphasize that we are all in this together.”
2) Get Outside
There is mounds of research showing the positive physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors. For example, studies show that two hours spent outdoors is crucial to our health and wellbeing. Simply walking in nature decreases anxiety and depression. Even with current restrictions on outdoor spaces, and even in frigid weather, boys need to get outside.
If your area isn’t restricted, planning a short get-away to a forest, beach, or National Park is an ideal mental health break. Hiking, snow-shoeing, or walking in sand offers the added boost of physical exercise.
If public spaces are off limits, find a place (a friend’s house, an empty lot, or your own backyard) where your son and a friend or two can kick a soccer ball, jump on a trampoline, or have a snowball fight.
Other outdoor spaces to temp teens to get outdoors include skate parks, a basketball court to join a pick-up game, or a snowy hill for sledding.
3) Go Virtual
If getting together in-person isn’t possible, strongly encourage your boy to continue relationships with friends and family virtually. “Connectivity with friends is important,” states Bravender.
Phone calls, Facetime, GroupMe or WhatsApp chat rooms, Zoom meetings, online video games, homework screen sharing, live messaging such as Marco Pollo or Snapchat — all can help replace some of the support and connection boys are missing due to COVID-19 and social isolation.
Finding a new online hobby or project can provide purpose, and a distraction. A few suggestions my twins have tried include exploring future vacation locations, activism work, and researching our family history. One of my boys is learning the guitar through virtual group lessons, and the other is teaching himself jewelry making by watching YouTube videos.
4) Be Creative
When isolation stretches on indefinitely and it seems like everything your son wants to do is off-limits, there may still be some (slightly sneaky) ways to get kids together with their friends.
When my son’s school play was cancelled, he and a group of kids from the cast put their heads together to find an alternative. They set up chairs in a parking lot (six feet apart of course) and sang their favorite songs from the show for a small group of friends and family.
My sister Beverly and a few parents organized an un-official flag football tournament for their sons whose football season had been cut short. She ordered the belts and flags online and set up the playing field in an empty lot.
An older son organized a study chat group, where he leaves a Zoom room open from 9:00 am to noon weekdays. School buddies come-and-go, ask for homework help, or simply study in silence–but in the presence of other teens.
If your son has a “crazy” idea, don’t shoot it down. Whether it’s a paintball fight you might otherwise deem too dangerous, or listening to a new band you think is awful, unless it crosses a legal or ethical line, just go with it!
5) Get Together
Even if COVID-19 and social isolation have your family getting on each other’s last nerve, it’s still important to get together regularly. Family meals are an ideal time to check in with each other.
An old fashioned game night, working on a puzzle together, starting a family garden, a one-on-one date night, or researching colleges online are just a few possibilities of other ways you can connect with your teen during the pandemic.
We all know how challenging it can be to get adolescent boys to talk. But now’s the time to really lean in. Without open communication, it’s nearly impossible to know whether that sullen boy is experiencing a normal blue mood, or if something deeper is going on.
According to Bravender, long stretches alone or being more moody than usual may not be something to worry about. But parents should be watchful for changes in behavior and other signs of severe loneliness or depression.
Bottom line. Talk to your tees. Even when (especially when) they don’t want to.
6) Let Go
As the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Family guidelines on cell phone, computer, and video game use are admirable. But a global pandemic is probably not the time to strictly enforce technology rules.
Consider allowing boys to spend more time than usual on social media and their phones to stay in touch with peers. Computers and cell phones may be their primary lifeline to friends and life outside the walls of your home.
TV can be an isolation-fighting tool, too. Kids are stressed, parents are stressed, and sometimes “vegging out” by binge-watching Netflix is just what the situation calls for.
Letting go of strict rules, schedules, and expectations can provide a more supportive, calm atmosphere at home — for both you and your teen. I know I personally have learned to relax and let go more. Some things are simply out of my control, no matter how much I wish they weren’t.
Bonus: Seek Help
We hope you’ve found these suggestions valuable. But if you–like many parents–sense that you or your teen are overwhelmed, it may be time to call for back-up. If your son is spending days in his room alone, acting out, or engaging in harmful behaviors, we encourage you to seek help.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and social isolation drags on, school closures and activity cancellations are taking a toll on everyone. But intention, empathy, and creative thinking can go a long way to minimizing the effects of social isolation on the boys we care about.
By Natalie Walker Whitlock, for The Forge School
If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice.
The suggestions herein should be adapted to local and state laws and mandates, and your own individual and family circumstances.