The pandemic means more time with older teens. How do we all cope?


AT: Thank you for your letter; I felt it in my soul. I recently sat across from my family at a meal and thought, “Have I been sitting in this chair, eating this green bean, for over 100 years?” The conversations, the meals, the faces—it is the same, every single day. And although people are built to be connected to each other in small groups, we are also social animals. We are meant to venture forth, meet people, do things, make mistakes, learn, meet more people and make more mistakes, and so on. This is true for everyone, introverts and extroverts alike.

So when our lives turn into “Groundhog Day,” it is easy to see why the spats begin. Your teens and young adults are bored straight and are desperately sick of each other. Welcome to life in another pandemic winter.

When desperation sets in and you begin to spin out, remind yourself what you are trying to do here. You, as the parent, are trying to bring your three children through a pandemic and have them emerge as people who continue to thrive and grow, despite and because of the challenges they faced. No small thing.

When we zoom out, we can release smaller details (peace at dinner and bickering) and refocus on what we parents can control, which is precious little. Let’s say you zoom out and realize everyone is bored and cantankerous at dinner. You could try to engage them more, babysit the fights and find fault or blame, or you could see that the antidote to boredom is purposeful action. Depending on your relationship with your children, I would recommend you get busy and give them work. For instance, explain that you are not able to make dinner and set the table as much, and say they need to do that work now. Your kids are prime for this investment, which includes meal planning, getting groceries, making food and cleaning up. And the truth? Busy and purposeful teens and young adults fight with one another less. As the saying goes: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece.”

If you are going to make yourself scarce and request more help, realistically assess what can and cannot be done. For instance, if your young adult is an excellent cook, give them autonomy to make what they like. If your youngest teen can only make mac and cheese, then either set them up to learn something else or get okay with mac and cheese. Meet your children where they are, and be supportive of the results.

You have also included an important detail in your letter when you wrote, “We are all running out of energy and ideas.” Lean right into that. Declare that dinner will be taken in front of the TV for the rest of the week, month or year. (It really doesn’t matter.) The rule is that everyone has to eat in the living room, watching the same TV, together. Sounds odd, but it makes a difference whether your family is together, even if you’re not speaking to each other. I would watch whatever you can reach a small consensus on (in my house, we watch ice hockey or a comedy), and keep it light. If your family is into watching “Intervention,” great, but I will always lobby for something lighthearted (“The Golden Girls”) to bring people together.

Why would I suggest eating in front of the TV? I am a big fan of dealing with reality and taking the path of least resistance. Yes, you will eat around a table again, but it is okay to give everyone a break and simply rest. Not everything needs a tough solution.

Finally, I recommend spending some one-on-one time with each child and planning something to look forward to. People need hope, and we like to look forward to something, even if it’s distant. Take a walk and daydream with your children, getting them to talk about where they would like to go or what they would like to do. Chances are that most of their dreams won’t be able to happen, but is there a way that some of their ideas could really take shape?

As a parent, you cannot fix your children’s lives — or this pandemic — but you can still help them dream and lead them toward solutions. If nothing else, they may begin to grieve everything they are missing. You may get anger, frustration and hopelessness, but that’s good. Keep mucking about in those feelings with your children: You are the safe container for it all. It will also give insight into which child is bored and which child may be depressed, which child needs more work and which child needs a weekend away with you.

For now, eat with the TV, make a plan for purposeful work, and take some time with each of your children and see what comes of it. For more ideas, check out Julie Lythcott-Haims’s “How to Raise an Adult.” This excellent book, full of data and stories, will inspire you to keep going and to take it easy on yourself. Good luck.

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