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As Parents Return to Work, Teens May Not Handle It Well. Here’s Why.

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

As COVID cases continue to drop nationwide, life is slowly returning to normal. Schools that closed are gradually opening for in-person classes. Sporting events, concerts, and parties are resuming. And parents are gearing up to go back to their regular work schedules if they haven’t already.

To most people, this is all good news. Not every employed parent enjoyed working from home during the pandemic. Evidence shows that many cut back their hours to make time to supervise their kids during virtual school. Some lost their jobs and were home full-time when they wanted to be working.

It stands to reason that many parents are excited to get back to their offices or restart their regular schedules. Imagine: the thrill of adult conversation. A cup of coffee finished while it’s still hot. No more kids pounding on your door or throwing temper tantrums while you’re in the middle of a team meeting. It’s enough to make a working adult get all misty-eyed.

Of course, many families are excited about schools opening again, too. Kids will return to a structured environment, and teens are eager to socialize and participate – in person – in all the milestone events they’ve looked forward to since they first heard about them. Prom, pep rallies, basketball games, you name it: they’re all more fun in person.

However, in some families, there are adolescents who are not looking forward to this transition. For example, teenagers who have a hard time academically, or who struggle with social anxiety, may be upset about going back to in-person classes. Our Back the Classroom Transition Guide teaches parents how to help deal with this adjustment. And then there are the teens who – dare we say it – enjoyed the extended time with their parents so much that they are dreading the day when Mom or Dad (or both) go back to work.

In 2020, Parents Stayed Home

A Pew Research study found that mothers and fathers were home, on average, about 5 hours more per week in 2020 than in 2019. About 7 percent of parents quit their jobs entirely during the pandemic. Others decided to work the same number of hours from home. In general, 65 percent of parents said they adjusted their work schedules to focus on their kids during COVID.

All of this points to one thing:

Your teens probably spent more time with you in the past year than they have in a long time.

And they may not be so happy about giving that up.

Teenagers who had their parents home the whole year – or for a good part of the year – have gotten used to this new normal: waking up to see Mom or Dad in the kitchen or eating breakfast, working side-by-side – or at least in the same house – on Zoom. Having lunch together, taking breaks together. That comfortable familiarity you get by going about your day together, living parallel lives.

All of that will change when mom or dad go back to the office. And now that airlines are lifting COVID regulations overall, parents who travel for business will be away from home again. Just like pre-pandemic times.

The question is, how will all this affect your kids?

If your teens are used to having one or both of you at home, they have to go back to not seeing you as often. That may be harder than it was before the pandemic. It’s like sitting in first class on an airplane – if you’re lucky enough to try it once, it’s hard to go back to the main cabin.

Teens: Problem Signs to Watch For

Let’s be clear: the point of this article is not to advocate for parents to stay home with their kids or for parents to go back to the office. We’re not choosing a side. Likewise, we don’t have a side on the in-person vs. remote school debate. For every family, we want what’s best for everyone involved. Since every family is different, there’s no single best option, here.

The purpose of this article is to send a message to working parents:

As you transition back to work, watch out for any emotional or behavioral changes in your teens.

Believe it or not, your teen may have secretly liked you being home, even if they’d never dare admit it out loud. They may have felt more safe, secure, or loved – especially if you had lots of bonding experiences. But even if you didn’t, your adolescent may have simply gotten used to having you around – even if it was just to borrow your charger or ask what’s for dinner.

The transition back to pre-pandemic times may be difficult.

Your return to your daily routine may make your teen depressed, anxious, or angry. During this transition, be on the lookout for the following signs:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased sadness
  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Increased aggression or outbursts
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Suicidal ideation*

*If your teen talks about suicide, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. In cases of emergency or crisis, go to the nearest hospital.*

If you see any of these signs in your teen, we recommend arranging a full psychiatric evaluation with a licensed mental health clinician.

Teens with Mental Health Issues

If your teen has pre-existing mental health issues, your return to work may have a bigger impact than you think. Teens with pre-existing anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, or other mental health or behavioral issues may have really enjoyed having a parent home. Reverting to the pre-pandemic work schedule may throw them off. If you notice any signs of regression, be sure to contact a licensed mental health counselor.

Additionally, if your teen was struggling with substance abuse, self-harming issues, or suicidal ideation, it’s important to have a plan in place for when you return to work. Who will supervise your adolescent when you’re away, if they’re not in school? Teens with substance use issues, suicidal ideation, or self-harming attempts may have needed the supervision of their parents (or a trusted adult) during virtual school. Now that you’re going back to work, how can you ensure your teen won’t revert to the life-interrupting habits they worked hard to break?

Teens whose symptoms resurfaced during this time may need professional treatment at an adolescent mental health treatment center. A licensed professional may recommend a residential treatment center (RTC), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or intensive outpatient program (IOP).

My Teen Hated Having Me Home

Maybe you’re reading this and shaking your head the whole time. Maybe you’re thinking,

“This is SO not my life. My teen can’t wait until I’m out of the house again.”

Perhaps you know for a fact that your teen hated having you home. Or maybe you hated being home. If either is the case, it’s worthwhile to take a few minutes to think about why. If you have a teen who’s counting the minutes until you go back to work, ask yourself why.

  • Do you constantly argue or have yelling matches?
  • Do you constantly pressure them to get online for school, do their homework, study, or clean their room?
  • Does your teen avoid you while you’re home?
  • Do you stress your teen out?
  • Does your teen stress you out?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, we think you should consider – at least consider – talking to a licensed mental health professional about your relationship dynamic. Check to see if you could benefit from family therapy or parental support. Some mental health treatment centers, such as residential treatment centers (RTCs), partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), offer formal parent support groups, parent-child training workshops, or therapy for families experiencing conflict with their teens.

Back to Work After COVID-19

Studies show rates of suicidal ideationsubstance use, and self-harming behavior have increased since the start of the pandemic, with teens and younger adults experiencing alarming increases in adverse mental health symptoms. A study by the CDC showed that the proportion of adolescents 12-17 visiting the psychiatric ward for an emergency in 2020 was 31 percent higher than in 2019. And in a national survey released by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital earlier this year, 29 percent of parents said their teen received professional mental health counseling as a result of the pandemic.

All this evidence points to a widely known fact: COVID had a negative impact on the mental health of teens across the country. As parents, we need to invest our time, energy, and attention to helping our adolescents recover from and manage the consequences of the pandemic. And now, we need to help them adjust to this new normal. If you or anyone in your family needs help with this transition, we recommend seeking support from a licensed mental health counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist. We encourage you do to it now. We encourage no not to put it off, thinking it’s just a phase or things will get better. When you notice issues in yourself, your teen, or anyone in your family, early intervention usually yields the best outcomes.

So, in a nutshell?

As you transition back to work and catch up with your colleagues and teammates, remember the most important members of your team:

Your kids.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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