April 30, 2020/Children's Health

How to Create Healthy Routines for Teens During the Age of Coronavirus

Stick to a daily schedule to keep sleep and school on track

Teen studying in her bedroom

COVID-19 has turned our worlds upside down. With schools closed and families sheltering in place, one day can run into the next … and the next. So it’s no surprise that your teen is struggling to stick to a routine.

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It might be tempting to let your adolescent stay up late, sleep until noon and deal with the day’s schoolwork when they get around to it. (After all, the last thing you need right now is another battle of wills.)

But routines are worth fighting for, says pediatric psychologist Kathryn Jones, PhD. “They can help teens establish some predictability and a sense of control,” she says.

And when everything else feels totally out of control, that’s a big deal.

Here’s how you can help your teen sketch out a schedule that works for your family.

Design a daily schedule

Too soon, your teen will be an adult venturing out into the world. Giving them a chance to design their own routine now is valuable practice for the future, Dr. Jones says.

“Talk to teens about what they think will work best for them. Developing that awareness will be helpful when they eventually leave home.”

She recommends focusing on the nonnegotiable stuff. “Things like schoolwork, exercise, chores, sleep. What do they need to accomplish?” she says. “You can work with them to develop a routine that makes sure those things get done every day.”

Aim to do things at roughly the same time each day. That doesn’t mean your teen has to set the alarm for 6 a.m. just because they used to when school was open. But try to stick to a (mostly) regular bedtime, wake time and learning schedule, she says. “Talk together to come up with a plan that works for your family.”

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Take a break

Living through a global pandemic is distracting, to say the least. To focus on classwork, teens should plan a stretch of uninterrupted time they can devote to school.

Still, we all need a minute to clear our heads. Dr. Jones recommends scheduling breaks into the school day for your teen to connect with friends or do something creative, like drawing or listening to music.

Lots of teens do well with a time-management tool called the Pomodoro Technique®, she says: “Plan to work for a set amount of time, say 30 minutes, then take a scheduled 10-minute break. This can really help teens who are struggling with procrastination or anxiety.”

Healthy routines are flexible

While routines are reassuring, some flexibility is fine, says Dr. Jones. Maybe your child plans to focus on math mid-day but discovers all her friends are getting together for a video chat during lunch hour. Or maybe you agree on no texting until after “school,” but your son is stumped by his chemistry homework and wants to reach out to a friend for help.

“Don’t stick with a schedule that isn’t working,” she says.

Tweak the schedule until you land on something that works. “There are things that have to get done, but you can be a little flexible on the specific timing as long as they meet their goals,” she says.

Teen sleep tips

Many teens are natural night owls. But at any age, sleep is important for physical and mental health, so make sure your young adult is getting sufficient shut-eye.

These habits can help kids get the sleep they need:

  • Be consistent: Stick to a consistent bedtime and wake time. (Most teens need 8 to 10 hours per night.)
  • Bye-phone: Avoid electronics before bed. If your teen must use a gadget in the evening, try an app that filters out blue light, which can be stimulating.
  • Wind down: Before bed, try a quiet activity like reading.
  • See the light: Try to get natural light in the morning. Go for a walk or eat breakfast near a sunny window.
  • Move it: Get regular exercise.
  • Don’t nap: Avoid naps longer than 45 minutes or after 5 p.m.
  • Use your bed for sleeping: Stake out another area to do schoolwork or lounge around during the day. (This helps your brain remember that bed = sleep.)
  • Breathe in, breathe out: Use relaxation techniques to help you fall asleep. People old and young are feeling extra stress and anxiety right now. To calm a racing mind, try tools like deep breathing, mindfulness apps or progressive muscle relaxation, which means squeezing and releasing your muscles, starting at your toes and working to your head.

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How to handle limit-testing teens

Routines look great on paper. But what if you’re getting pushback from your moody adolescent as you try to maintain a normal schedule?

In some ways, that pushback is a good thing — a dose of normalcy in the midst of a totally abnormal situation. “Testing limits is part of being an adolescent,” Dr. Jones says.

That doesn’t mean you have to brace for daily combat. Pick your battles: “Set clear expectations about what’s not OK — sneaking out, lying to you — and decide together, in advance, what the consequences will be for breaking those rules,” Dr. Jones says. “At the same time, figure out what you can let go of.”

And remember that these are weird times, and teens — like the rest of us — are doing their best. “Try to focus on the positives, and remind yourself that things aren’t going to go perfectly,” Dr. Jones adds. “Thinking they will is only going to cause you additional stress.”

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