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Why It’s So Hard for Teens to Shelter-at-Home & Tips for Making it Tolerable

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Sheltering at home is difficult for most of us, but for teens it can seem almost unbearable. Adults may easily find ways to cope with the situation, but teens seem to struggle with it much more. Today in an interview with adolescent therapist and teen self-help author Lisa M. Schab, we are learning why it’s so hard for teens to shelter-at-home and ways parents can help them through it.

Q&A with Lisa M. Schab, LCSW

Thank you for talking with us today. I know there are a lot of parents of teens out there, myself included, who have been asking these same questions. Teens seem to be so moody and unpredictable as it is, and with this new situation we just don’t know how to navigate these waters.

My hopes are that parents of teens can gain some insight to their child’s thought process and find ways to help make the days easier for both their teen and themselves. So let’s get started!

teen sitting on front porch wearing hoodie while social distancing

Why It’s So Hard for Teens to Shelter-at-Home

Q:  Why does it seem so much harder for teens to shelter-at-home than anyone else in the family?

A:  Good question!  It seems that way because it is!  What we see is what teens are feeling.  Adults may feel like they’ve been asked to play in their own yard, but teens feel more like they’ve been put on a heavy duty leash with a choke collar.  

Q.  But everyone’s stuck at home and no one likes it, so why is it any worse for teens?

A.  It feels harder for teens because it’s the very opposite of what they want to do and are supposed to do at this time in their life. 

One of the most important things we do during adolescence is to separate from family and become self-sufficient. In order for us to develop healthy independence we need to spend more time out of the house than in, more time with peers than with parents, and more time forging our own way than being micro-managed and told what to do. 

Healthy teen development means learning to feel comfortable and safe “outside the nest.” Sheltering-at-home takes away nearly all of these options.   

teen struggling with shelter at home orders

Q.  But teens can still talk, text, and facetime – they’re not cut off from friends – why isn’t that enough?

A.  Yes, fortunately teens have lots of technology to help them through this.  But socializing on the phone isn’t the same as being out of the house.

During normal times, teens can leave their house and head for coffee shops, malls, fitness centers, and school sporting events to hang out with friends.  Socializing away from home offers the chance to be on one’s own and yet still have a home base to go back to at the end of the day. The ability to be physically separate from home in those venues fosters healthy independence and confidence.  It’s a safe way to put one foot into adulthood and yet keep the other safely in the nest for grounding.  

This physical socializing also helps relieve stress – the opposite of being cooped up.  Sheltering-at-home takes away those options for growing independence. This change is even more pronounced for older teens who’ve had to move home from college or other living situations.  If they’ve already been on their own for some time, it can be harder to adjust back to living under parents’ “house rule” again.

teen on phone while shelter at home

Q.  It seems like teens would be happy to not have to go to school.  But it doesn’t look like that’s the case either. Why is that?

A.  While it might feel great to not have to get up early and spend all day in classes, school offers far more to teens than structured learning.  Being in school is another part of teens’ developing independence as it offers so many avenues for identity development as well.

Along with separating from family during adolescence, a second major developmental task is “individuating” – or exploring, getting to know, develop, and become one’s unique individual self.  The extracurricular activities and opportunities that school affords are a huge part of how teens get to know and develop their authentic selves.  

This means a shelter-at-home order not only limits socializing, it also limits or temporarily ends the valuable time spent in groups that foster academics, athletics, debate, theater, social service, culture, music, expressive arts, future careers, and more.  These activities play a big role in teens’ developing identities, helping them explore and define their likes and dislikes, dreams and desires, passions and pursuits.

While some of these may be available online, it’s not quite the same as being in person – and of course many activities don’t have online capabilities.  So this is another area where teens are cut off from what helps them grow and expand.

Q.  This makes sense.  Is there anything else that teens lose when school is shut down?

A.  Yes, teens lose a lot of “landmark” life events as well.  Athletic competitions, prom, awards banquets, and graduation ceremonies aren’t possible with a shelter-at-home order.  While online adjustments can be made in some circumstances, most of these events are impossible to follow through with.  

Graduates especially miss out on a lot of traditions of their last year in middle school or high school.  The fact that one has graduated is still real, but the excitement, honor, and shared experience of an in-person ceremony is lost.  

Even if teens aren’t interested in some of these rites of passage, they form a part of the foundation of their life experiences, so there’s a feeling of loss when they’re removed. 

teen napping on couch while sheltering at home

Q.  Would this feeling of loss apply to teens who are working also?

A.  Absolutely.  While many adults are fortunate enough to be able to work from home, most teen jobs don’t afford that opportunity.  Babysitting, retail, and fast food jobs (except for drive-through) have all been curtailed. So the out-of-the-house experience of working is also shut off. 

And for teens, a job brings both some degree of economic independence as well as the emotional and mental confidence that builds with working outside the home.  This work is such a great part of teens’ ability to grow and mature and to build healthy self-esteem and their individual identity, that the loss is felt on many levels.

Tips for parents to make sheltering-at-home tolerable for teens

Q.  Is there anything families can do to make this lockdown easier?

A.  Yes, definitely!  When dealing with shelter-at-home, some of the things we can do include:

1. Trying to be patient, understanding, and empathic with each other.  It’s a hard time for everyone, and adolescence can be a bumpy road even on an average day when we can get out of the house and get breaks from each other.  If family members can remember to take a breath and stay centered and calm, they can approach conflicts from a perspective of cooperation rather than disrespect.

2. Accepting feelings but not negative behavior.  Fear, frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, bewilderment, stress, boredom, worry, anxiety, and more are all common emotions right now – and emotions in teens tend to run higher than average.  

Try to accept all feelings! Telling someone they “don’t have a right to feel angry” or “shouldn’t” feel something doesn’t help them handle their emotion.  Try to differentiate between emotions and inappropriate or disrespectful behavior which doesn’t need to be tolerated.  

teen shelter-at-home on sofa looking out window

Find safe ways for teens and all family members to release emotion – such as walks outdoors, yoga, journaling, music, teletherapy, or family meetings where everyone can share how they’re feeling without judgement. 

3. Giving each other space.  With so much time spent confined to the house we need to allow each other adequate space.  Family meals which once may have served to bring everyone together can be more flexible now.  Teens who may be used to going out with friends for food can be allowed to eat at different times or on their own.  If kids share a bedroom, allow them to each have the room alone for a part of the day. If there’s only one TV, computer or video game station, let everyone have some private time with the screen.

4. Finding ways to promote independence.  Help teens foster independence at home by letting them make as many decisions for themselves as possible – such as creating homework and sleep schedules, making food choices, etc. – as long as they’re staying safe.    Depending on age and situation, teens can spend time researching and planning for the future including summer, the next vacation, the next school year, or post-graduation plans. There’s lots of time now to check out activities, destinations, jobs, camps, colleges, military, and career choices.  

5. Getting creative!  Find ways to still socialize and celebrate important life events by having drive-by parties, Skype/Zoom events, or home ceremonies for important rites of passage.  Gifts and cards can still be ordered online, and there’s nothing wrong with homemade! Surprise family dinners or front-porch ceremonies can be fun and break up the monotony of quarantine.

6. Offering chances to earn money.  If a teen can’t get a paycheck from their regular job for a while, look for at-home opportunities to earn cash – such as cleaning out the garage or attic, painting the fence or basement, cleaning gutters, or lawn and garden work.  With many parents working from home, there might be extra admin work, filing, shredding or device tech work that teens can help with, too. 

[Read how the Seghetti family does chores and allowance here.]

7. Promoting physical activity to manage moods.  Exercise is one of the most effective ways to stave off anxiety, depression, frustration, or any high emotion.  When we’re cooped up together – especially if we’re teens – feelings can run fast and deep and shift quickly. Getting outside for a walk, a run, shooting hoops in the driveway, or on the yoga mat indoors are all great ways to release the stress chemicals that shoot out with high emotion.  

Find something you like – within social distancing guidelines – and practice it daily.  Mix things up to prevent boredom. Teens might set up “Olympic games” for younger siblings to help all kids benefit.

8. Finding ways to give.  There’s always people in harder situations than our own and reaching out can help put our own challenges in perspective and feel really good when we make a difference.  Write to kids and teens in hospitals, help elderly neighbors with lawn work or groceries, tutor kids via video, find ways to cheer up sad friends. Tap into your highest self and share positivity and love.

teen shelter-at-home reading in chair

9. Remembering we can tolerate discomfort!  We may not like this, but we’ve been through challenges before and we can do this, too. Starting a new school, learning a new subject, taking a hard test, practicing a new skill – so many things require us to stretch ourselves.  This is new so we can’t look back and say, “Oh, yes, sure – sheltering-at-home – been there, done that, it’s a hassle but I’ll get through it.” But we’ve tolerated discomfort in some way before and we can do this, too.

10. Taking care of ourselves!  The best thing all of us can do for each other is always to take care of our own health.  The more physically and emotionally healthy we are, the more energy, patience, and wisdom we have to help each other!  

We need to sleep well, eat well, and get fresh air and exercise – within social distancing guidelines.  We need to spend time releasing emotion in safe and healthy ways. We need to respect each other’s boundaries and try to communicate from love rather than frustration.  This can be a good time to make use of self-help books, workbooks, and journals that help us grow into our best selves.

Q. Any final thoughts and advice for families?

A: Remember that there will be bumps in the road – no one can or is doing this with perfect grace.  Try your best and when conflict, irritation, or frustration arises, take a breath and take a break.  Be safe and do the best you can! We’re all in this together.


I’m so glad Lisa was able to help answer these questions for us. As a mom who is stuck at home with her four children, including an 18 year old and a bonus 19 year old living with us – the days can seem quite long at times! I know these ideas are going to be helpful for our family – and I really hope they help you too.

For a teen’s perspective on Lisa’s creative guided journal Put Your Feelings Here, check out Hunter’s book review on our Twilighter’s book blog.

Lisa M. Schab LCSW is a practicing psychotherapist and the author of 18 self-help books for kids, teens, and adults, including the international best-sellers, The Anxiety Workbook for Teens and The Self-Esteem Workbook for Teens.  Her new creative guided journal series includes Put Your Worries Here (for anxiety) and Put Your Feelings Here (for intense emotions.)  Connect with her at www.lisamschabooks.com.

Teens shelter at home pin

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