Supporting your teen during COVID-19
Lisa Heffernan
Co-founder of Grown & Flown, writer, and co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults

Teens are having a tough time right now. Milestones like prom and graduation went virtual or got canceled. So did classes, college campus visits, driver's ed, and hangouts with friends. "This is a very painful experience for them," says Lisa Heffernan, co-founder of Grown & Flown, the #1 website for parents of teens and young adults. Lisa also co-authored the book, Grown & Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults. She says parents need to show extra understanding and sympathy towards their teens right now, and acknowledge that their frustration and anger with quarantines are entirely rational responses to the crisis we're all living through. Lisa joins us to share practical advice on how to help high schoolers and college kids live, learn, and succeed — emotionally and academically — in our new reality.

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • The importance of modeling and suggesting constructive solutions to teens' problems
  • How the coronavirus has impacted the college admission process, including tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP exams
  • Will more kids decide to take a gap year this year?
  • How parents should treat their college-age children who are living back at home
  • How to break through and communicate with a teen who isn't adhering to social distancing rules (grounding won't work anymore!)
  • Resources to help teens and college students find virtual internship and job opportunities
  • Ways to encourage teens to keep healthy friendships and relationships in the era of Covid-19

For more information, visit www.grownandflown.com.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Supporting your teen during COVID-19

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast, brought to you by Care@Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard but think about how hard it is right now for teens in high school and college whose classes have moved online, whose milestones have been canceled, whose graduation went viral. This is a really, really tough time for them. Today's guest is Lisa Heffernan. She's the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the number one website for parents of teens and young adults.

Along with her co-founder Mary Dell Harrington, Lisa co-authored the book Grown and Flown, How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults. Lisa and I discussed how teens are living and learning at home under quarantine and some of the things parents can do to help their high-schoolers and college kids cope and succeed during this crisis emotionally and academically, have a listen. Lisa, welcome to Equal Parts. Thank you so much for being here today.

Lisa Heffernan: Thank you so much for having me.

Emily Paisner: As you know, this is such a bizarre time for everyone, but for teenagers, this is especially hard. They can't hang out with their friends, they can't do the usual things they do and their typical milestones that they just aren't being able to celebrate like the prom. They can't go on college visits, their summer plans and graduation. I imagine that it's causing a lot of sadness and stress and anxiety. How can parents help and support their teens who are working their way through all of these challenges emotionally and mentally right now?

Lisa Heffernan: Well, I think this is a very difficult time for teens. One mom's opinion, I think teens are actually in the toughest position with our current situation. I think parents could help in a lot of really important ways. The first one is they can acknowledge how hard this is for the kids. Kids are being given the message in part there are bigger problems than yours. We're having a pandemic. Missing your prom is nothing compared to being in the hospital.

All of that is true on one level, but on another level, teens are experiencing their own lives, so parents can help by acknowledging that their pain and their losses are very real even in the context of a much larger problem that our country is facing right now. They can help teens by modeling and seeking constructive solutions to some of their problems. One of the things you just mentioned was it's very difficult to go on college visits and this is spring of 2020.

This is the year that juniors would often be visiting colleges to see what they're like. Well, the campuses are closed and the students aren't there and the tours aren't available, but that doesn't mean there aren't a ton of online resources. Most colleges are doing webinars. There are sites which specialize just in college visits. There's one called CampusReel. That's videos put together by current students. Helping your student, once they've gotten past that sort of sadness and grieving, find some constructive solutions to the very real challenges they're facing.

This is really a chance I think to do some of our very best parenting. We've told our kids all of their lives that we value family closeness and families are there for each other. Here is the moment where we can show it. We've told them that we value community and sacrificing for others. Here's the moment where we can show it. This generation of kids has been talked to about being a global citizen all of their lives. They are really the first generation of truly global citizen. Here's a chance for them to walk the walk.

Emily Paisner: Let's talk a little bit more about college admissions because you touched on the fact that these college juniors can't do the typical college touring, but how has this impacted things like the SAT and the ACT and just the overall college application process?

Lisa Heffernan: It's been very deeply impacted. I'll talk to you about a couple of ways. First of all, the March and the May tests of the ACT and the SAT, which are the two most popular exams for high school juniors to take, were both canceled. Many juniors who would have a test score already or even be re-taking. It would be very common to take the March test and then retest the May test. Haven't even taken the test yet once, so they're scrambling.

The test services have done a lot of remediation. They're offering more summer tests than ever before, but we don't know whether those tests will be able to be given. The testing process has been deeply, deeply impacted. AP tests, which many high school juniors and seniors would be taking right now, last week and this week, were given online and there were a lot of technical problems. Kids sat the test, they took the test and then they couldn't get the test to upload.

Emily Paisner: So stressful.

Lisa Heffernan: They're going to have to retest their APs and they took them. That's obviously creating much additional stress, but many colleges have already come out, including the largest public university system, the University of California saying they will not require exam scores, ACT or SAT scores, for the least the high school class of 2021. Some of them have even said for all the kids who are in high school at the moment, including high school sophomores and high school freshmen. Parents should feel a little bit of relief in that.

Emily Paisner: Is there potentially a future in test scoring here?

Lisa Heffernan: I certainly can't speculate on the future. I know that they've gone-- Many schools have gone test optional. Now, that's not saying that they don't want tests. If the kids have good scores, if the kids have good scores, it will only help their application. But many schools that were not test optional, the required tests are no longer requirement, and kids can look up right now and see what schools those are and see if those are the schools that would be on their list. That's super important. The Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping a tally of what different colleges are doing next year. The changes span a huge range of options. Some schools are not opening at all.

The Cal state universities are not opening at all. They're going online. Some schools are starting later. They may be starting in October. Some schools are starting earlier. Notre Dame announced it. They are going to be starting earlier in August and sending the kids home at Thanksgiving for the end of their fall semester so that students don't go back and forth and they'll be canceling things like family weekends. One final thing and this will impact all current high school juniors. The Common App has added a question about this period. They are going to let students explain the challenges, the unique challenges they may have faced during this period and how it impacted their lives.

Emily Paisner: Do you think more kids will take a gap year this year to try and ensure that they're getting their money's worth, if you will?

Lisa Heffernan: There's a lot of talk about this. We run a large Facebook group of 155,000 parents called Grown and Flown Parents. There has been much discussion about kids taking a gap year or about going to community college, staying closer to home, doing a less expensive option for two years, rather than starting at that four-year university. There has been a lot of talk about kids trying to transfer or apply still to four-year universities that are closer to home. Lots of different things in discussion.

We polled our group the other day and the results were overwhelmingly the kids would go back to school in the fall, whether it was online or in person. Despite the fact that families are considering a lot of different options, I think most people, the overwhelming number of people we polled said that they are resigned to the kids going back to college in whatever form that's offered.

The one caveat about gap years, I would say, there's two caveats. The first is not every school will offer it and make it available because of the numbers this year. It's one thing if a couple of kids ask every year, but what's a college going to do if a couple of hundred kids ask or a couple of thousand kids ask. The second thing is the sorts of things that students usually do during a gap year, which might involve work placements, internships, traveling, community service. Many of those things aren't going to be available. Colleges may not be as willing to offer a gap year for students to sit home without those kinds of activities available to them.

Emily Paisner: What about kids who are already in college, who have now had to readjust to living at home with their parents and other siblings? It probably feels a bit regressive after they've spent months or years living on their own at school. Thinking back to when I was that age, I probably would not have enjoyed that very much. How can students and their families adjust to this new normal in the foreseeable future?

Lisa Heffernan: This is super, super challenging because our impulse as parents is sort of to slip back into the roles that we had the last time the kids were home and living with us. When our students were living at home with us for extended period of times, they were in high school, they were teenagers, they were under 18 and it was a little bit my house, my rules.

Now, they're college students or even young adults. I actually have four young adults living with me right now. It's a completely different dynamic. These are people who run their own lives, who have been completely independent for some period of time. We need to adapt to that. We need to remember over and over again that we cannot slip back into the way we behaved or we risk them slipping back into the way they behaved.

Lisa Damour who's a wonderful psychologist, who writes about parenting teenage girls particularly, says that they will rise to the standard we set. If we talk to them like they're 17 or if we talk to them like they're 15, they will act like they're 15. If we talk to them like they're 25, they will respond in kind. It's super important for us to remember that we set the tone. The big challenge I think so many people are facing and this is what we hear in Grown and Flown Parents all the time is the student or the young adults want to be more lax about social distancing than parents. You can't ground a 21-year-old. You can ground a 15-year-old. It's really hard to ground a 21-year-old. Then, we need to get into some of those really important discussions about responsibility and acting like adult and doing things for other people and showing them some of the sacrifices, very, very real sacrifices that we're making and how they have to make those alongside us.

Emily Paisner: What if you disagree with how seriously they are taking social distancing rules and they're living in your home, what can you do about that?

Lisa Heffernan: You have to have that conversation and talk to them and treat them like they're adults. You need to bring data to the conversation, if it helps, show them how widespread-- I live in New York, it's easy to show how widespread and how dangerous the outbreak has been. Show what experts are saying, medical and epidemiological professionals, what they're saying about the risks of the disease. So, they're not just listening to you who are probably not a health professional or knowledgeable enough.

I have seen and we have seen extreme cases where parents have said to kids, "You can't stay in my house." That works if the student has someplace else to live, if they have perhaps another parent or a friend or maybe they have a college apartment that they can actually go back to that is empty now. With some of the travel restrictions being changed, the kids can go back to their apartment. It's obviously not ideal to get to that situation where you have that kind of break with your young adult. So, I would try all the other methods first.

Emily Paisner: Summer jobs and internships and first jobs are really a rite of passage for many teens and young adults. It's not just about the money. It's about gaining important life experiences, but as you mentioned earlier, those opportunities are dwindling because of this. What are kids supposed to do about this? What are they supposed to be doing all summer long? Are there resources that we can help them tap into to try and make the most of this time?

Lisa Heffernan: There's a bunch of things that they can start to do. They can work on their skills or take classes online. Many, many colleges are offering a lot of virtual teaching this summer because they know that students are in this position. They can take a class they were going to take next fall. They can take a couple of classes and maybe graduate early. They have a lot of options around their academic career.

Internships are not just a summer phenomenon. We think of them that way, but they happen all year long. In fact, getting an internship in the fall or the spring is less competitive than getting one in the summer. So, it can certainly be the case that if a student uses the summer to fill in some of their academic course load, then they'll have more time in the fall or the spring to do an internship. There are organizations, I just interviewed somebody who runs one called Parker Dewey that offers short internships, micro-internships.

These are projects that college students can work on for a week, a month, they're paid opportunities. If a student had an internship and their internship was canceled, they can go back to that employer who once wanted them and say, "Do you have a project I can work on or can I work on the project I was going to work on?" Or they can reach out to organizations like Parker Dewey or Handshake. Part of reframing the issue for our kids is to show them why a virtual opportunity might be just every bit as good as a regular opportunity. The work-from-home culture is changing in our country.

Twitter announced that all of their employees can decide if they ever want to come back to work. Many large companies have told their employees, they don't need to come back for all of 2020. If kids are able to find an online opportunity, a virtual internship, it's really training them for the work of the future. It's also giving them some insight into whether or not this is a way that they work well.

It's also a chance perhaps to do more than one thing. Some kids are getting a job at a fast food location or something that's still open in their community to make money. They're using the remainder of their time to do a virtual internship. It may be a chance to do more than you would have been able to do in a summer where you needed to be in an office for an internship.

Emily Paisner: Let's switch gears and talk about relationships and young love. Boyfriends and girlfriends across the country are probably missing each other a lot. How can they get through this in a way that is appropriate and following the social distancing rules?

Lisa Heffernan: This I think has been the biggest challenge parents have faced with kids wanting to physically be in the same place, both their romantic relationships and their deep friendships. In-person friendship is more important to teenagers than it is to adults. We can stay in touch with people more comfortably through lots of different means and we don't need the constant contact. We don't need the constant validation of friendship that researchers have shown is so important to teenagers. We have to start by being understanding. We had a piece on our website on Grown and Flown about this recently. Someone has just written a book about friendship and she talks about what we know about their brains explains why friendship is so much more important to them in this moment. So, we need to be understanding as parents. The best we can do is follow the guidelines wherever we live, but some of those guidelines suggest that they can be together and do things if they keep a certain distance.

I watched one of my kids go for a jog with a friend the other day and they were on opposite sides of street. They were probably more like 15 feet apart than six feet apart. They jogged and they shouted at each other across the street. If you could offer them those little tiny tidbits that experts tell us they're safe, that can help a bit. This is really a challenge. It's difficult to get past at this moment.

Emily Paisner: What is one last piece of wisdom you can leave our listeners with who are likely full-time working parents and managing a lot of uncertainty with themselves, a uncertain future with the summer and the fall and how they can help their teenage children?

Lisa Heffernan: I think the biggest gift we can offer our kids is to understand their frustration and their being upset and even their anger as rational responses to what's happening. There's a part of us as adults that want to tell them, "You've got to get over this," and they do need to get over this, but this is a very, very painful experience for them. More painful for them than for us, and I'll explain why.

The summer that you're 17 is a once in a lifetime summer, you're never ever going to have that summer again. The summer you're going into your senior in high school or the summer that you're 18 or 19, going into your freshman year in college, that's never coming around again. Prom is never coming around again. Graduation is never coming around again. The summer that you're 47 isn't so different than the summer you're 48. So, they are missing something more profound in their lives, and we need to be understanding and sympathetic to that.

I think that's probably the biggest gift we can get them. They need to move on. They need to get over it, but we need to listen and offer constructive solutions. I think there's a silver lining in all of these events that we're all living through right now, it's that our kids may emerge from this more resilient and more compassionate and more prepared for adulthood, so as painful as this moment is, I think as parents we could step back and remind ourselves that it is teaching them some of the life lessons that we know will help them in adulthood no matter how painful they are in this moment.

Emily Paisner: Lisa, thank you so much for joining us today. This was really, really helpful advice.

Lisa Heffernan: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real life-saver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.