Understanding and Helping Your Frustrated Teen During the Coronavirus Crisis

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Families with teenagers confined to their homes during the coronavirus crisis face unique challenges. While some teens are coping reasonably well with the school closures and stay-at-home orders, others are struggling and are far more irritable, withdrawn, and unmotivated than they would normally be.

Teens who are prone to symptoms of anxiety or depression and those who already had tense relationships with their parents are among those struggling the most. Not surprisingly, parents of struggling teens are also struggling themselves. When a teenager is constantly irritable or frustrated, it affects the whole family – especially when the whole family is stuck at home.

While parents cannot directly change their teen’s mood or outlook on life right now, there are a few mental shifts that parents can make to help improve the situation for themselves, and hopefully for their teen as well.

  1. Check your expectations. Avoid placing adult-sized expectations on your teenager, especially around their reactions to the coronavirus crisis and social distancing measures. It is completely normal for teens to lack perspective and minimize the potential impact of the coronavirus on themselves or their family and friends. It’s also normal for them to fail to comprehend the reasons why social distancing is so important or think that their world is ending when they can’t see their friends or participate in the activities that they enjoy.

Perspective is something that comes with age and experience. Most teens simply haven’t had enough life experience to grasp how our own behavior during this global crisis can affect the health and well-being of others (even many adults are struggling to understand this right now). The same applies to your expectations for their ability to self-motivate and complete the schoolwork they have been assigned, or voluntarily turn off their videos or videogames and do something active or help out around the house.

All teens, and especially teens with ADHD, are much less skilled at creating their own structure and motivation than adults. So, be patient and remember that while your teenager may look all grown up, they are in many ways still a child.   

  1. Avoid falling into a ‘comparative suffering’ mindset. Comparative suffering, a concept popularized by Brené Brown, refers to our tendency to view our own difficult situation in comparison to others who may have it worse than we do. How often have you recently thought (or heard someone say) something like, “I’m so overwhelmed right now, but I shouldn’t complain. It’s the healthcare workers on the front lines and families who have lost loved ones who are really struggling.”

Comparative suffering may seem like a helpful and humble way to think about your situation, and usually, it’s coming from a good place. The problem is that it causes us to bottle up our feelings (which then inevitably seep out in unhealthy ways), and as Brené Brown notes, “comparative suffering corrodes compassion and connection.”

This is particularly true when you view your teenager’s situation through a comparative suffering lens. Take this typical example, “I’m so frustrated with my teen. He’s acting out and being selfish just because I won’t let him hang out with his friends. Doesn’t he really how lucky he is, or that there are people out there struggling with serious problems right now?”  This type of comparative suffering mindset makes it extremely difficult for parents to connect with their teens and have compassion for their situation. The comparison comes much more easily when parents shift their thoughts and expectations to match their teen’s perspective, “My teen is really struggling right now. His friends are so important to him, and he had so many things he was looking forward to doing with them this spring. He doesn’t have enough experience to understand the big picture, and to him this must feel devastating.” 

  1. Express empathy. Teens will respond better to everything that you say to them or ask of them if you empathize with their situation. Let them know that you realize that all of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus crisis are hard on them, and that being confined to their home is not easy. Some teens may not let you know outwardly that your empathy matters, but don’t be discouraged. Over time, it will make a difference (whether your teen admits it or not!).
  2. Find time to connect. Finding ways to connect with your teen and do things together that your teen enjoys is more important than ever during a crisis. Even if your teen is pushing you away, try to find little ways to laugh or smile together. Ask them about activities they might like to do with you, and if they’re willing, have them take the lead on planning a fun (at-home) activity that you can do together.
  3. Continue to set limits. No matter how difficult or frustrating your teen’s behavior is at times, it’s essential that you continue to set appropriate limits. Teenagers rely on these limits to help them regulate their mood and their behavior (especially when a teen has ADHD). So, continue to hold the line no matter how tempting it may be to give up on limit-setting when your teen pushes back.

Lastly, if your teen is struggling with anxiety or depression (or other mental health difficulties), or you feel like you need additional support to parent your teen effectively during this crisis, reach out to a mental health professional (most are offering telehealth sessions). Your pediatrician can provide referrals to a provider in your area.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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