Dialectic parenting during the pandemic

One of the more challenging aspects of the pandemic—beyond the serious health and economic impacts—has been parenting during this time when everyone is carrying more than their share of stress and anxiety.

Parenting teens, in particular, maybe especially challenging as many teens have been cooped up at home unable to attend school or their usual activities, with parents that are trying to juggle their many responsibilities. As such, tempers may flare, conflict may fester, and parenting efforts may falter. Parents may also feel confused about how to respond to their teens. Should they lay down the law so house safety rules are not violated and schoolwork does not suffer? Or should they ease up, seeing their teen’s heightened emotional vulnerability during the ups and downs of lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing?

We recommend “walking a middle path” with dialectic parenting, balancing acceptance with change, validation with problem-solving, and flexibility with limits. That is, while we want to accept, validate, and convey empathy for our teens’ many losses and disruptions, at a particularly hard time in their lives, we want to at the same time set clear expectations and limits and uphold standards that reflect our family values. What would this dialectical parenting look like?

1. Convey understanding. Listen to your teen, ask them about how they are doing and what they need, and listen non-judgmentally without minimizing or invalidating (e.g., “It’s really disappointing that your football season was canceled.” I know you want to sleep over at your friend’s house and I am so sad for you that you can’t yet sleep over at your friend’s house.” Avoid: “that’s ridiculous – you are overreacting!” “Everyone has to give up seeing their friends for now – you just have to accept it!” “Others have it much worse – at least you have X, Y, or Z!”)

2. Adopt a dialectic stance. Listen for the kernel of truth from your teen’s perspective, and maintain an open and curious stance. Find what is valid on your teen’s side of a disagreement and explicitly communicate that understanding of his or her perspective while not disavowing your own. Remember, your point of view can be true AND their point of view can be true at the same time. For example, it is not safe to have a large group of friends over now AND it makes sense how much they miss hanging out with their friends.

3. Explicitly validate their emotions, task difficulty, and their wishes (e.g., “I know you are really worried about your grandparents right now, and also really sad that all your favorite music and sports activities got canceled for this year.” “I get it that it’s harder to focus when classes are online.” “It makes total sense that you wish we could take that trip we’d been planning.” Stay with the validation – don’t rush it or short-change it. It needs to sink in before setting limits or offering reassurance or problem-solving.

At the same time……

4. Set clear and consistent limits and rules you need to set as a parent. For example, what are your rules for screen time, especially at night before bed? Establish these if you don’t already have them, especially now that so much learning and social interaction takes place virtually. Some face-to-face contact, physical activity, as well as contact with the outdoors/nature if possible is important for mental health! Maintain your rules about showing up for family dinners, attending online school with the camera on, completing at least some portion of HW before videogames, or covid safety guidelines, such as not having groups of friends over to the house indoors.

5. Know when to flex the rules, being willing to negotiate on some issues. This will be easier to do when balanced with acknowledgment of the teen’s desires and many losses this year. For example, help your teen find ways to have safe gatherings outdoors.

These are tough times for everybody, and we can both improve the quality of family life and prevent making it worse by communicating with empathy and validation, adopting a dialectical and flexible stance while still maintaining our values and standards. Walking the middle path skills will benefit teens and parents alike!

Dr Jill Rathus and Dr Alec Miller are co-developers of the adolescent-family adaption of DBT. 

Article originally published on www.psychwire.com.