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The Science of HappinessMJ O'Leary
By Dr. Sandra Clavelli, Clinical Psychologist
As state stay-at-home orders persist — or are reinstated following surges in COVID-19 cases — and summer plans look very different than usual, some of our high school and college kids are getting frustrated. They’re angry. They’re bored.
These feelings are normal. Some may have been issues before the pandemic, but now are more pronounced.
And what is making them so frustrated? Our students have no choice but to stay home. They can’t see their friends, or can only see them under very restricted circumstances. They missed the end of their school year along with all the spring festivities they'd looked forward. Activities, jobs, camps and trips have been canceled and they may feel they have little control over their day-to-day lives. Uncertainty is now the norm.
Some people adapt well to spending more time at home but not all of us. Things your student could overlook before may be getting under their skin now (including their families). Worst of all, there is no end in sight — no specific date on the calendar to look forward to.
Despite all this, there are strategies you can use to help your young adult child cope with their frustration and anger, not just in the short term with COVID-19, but throughout life.
While it may be tempting to encourage your student to “get the anger out” by punching a pillow, think twice. This actually reinforces in the brain that anger should be paired with aggression — not a concept we want to reinforce. Nor do we want kids to get the message that the only way to be heard is to become physically aggressive.
On the other extreme, your instinct may be to encourage your student to employ calming strategies: take a bath, read outside, go for a walk. These things certainly can help kids learn to relax — and should be explored as long-term strategies for managing stress. However, if we only focus on calming kids whenever they’re angry, they may get the message that angry feelings are unacceptable. If they always push their anger down, it will only emerge more strongly later.
While it’s important to help teens find effective calming techniques, it’s equally important to listen to what their angry feelings are saying — and to teach them to listen, too.
Anger and frustration are cues that help us recognize when we need to stand up for ourselves or solve a problem in our life. Experiencing these emotions may help teens recognize that they aren’t really taking care of themselves and need to find ways to do so. It can also help them realize that they need to approach a problem in a different way.
In other words, the things that trigger your student’s anger are clues to the problem your student needs help solving. By listening to what it reveals, you can help them address it without resorting to outbursts.
When we really listen to what our children are saying through their anger — and we coach them to hear themselves as well — we help them find ways to address their emotions in a positive, adaptive way.
You know your family and child best. You’ve already made many successful adjustments to this difficult situation, and chances are, you can tackle this. Of course, if you get to a point when you think your student needs a higher level of help, don’t hesitate to ask for it. Shutdown or no shutdown, help is a phone call away.