Getting Past One-Word Answers: 5 Questions to Ask Your Teenager About School During the Pandemic

Teenage son and mom


If you’re the parent of a teenager, you’re probably more than familiar with one-word answers. Whether in response to asking them how their day was (“meh”) or to what they want to do with the rest of their life (“dunno”), teens are experts at dishing out short replies.

A teenager’s reluctance to engage in conversation can stem from a variety of reasons, from a desire for space to budding independence to developing communication skills. In most cases, it’s not only normal, but it’s also a necessary stage of adolescence.

Add in the frustrations of a global pandemic, such as virtual schooling, social distancing, and canceled events, and getting past one-word responses might be a little more difficult right now.

However, these COVID-19 hurdles may be more than just frustrating — they could be impacting their education as well as their mental well-being.

Fast Facts

A survey of over 1,500 teens ages 13 to 19 revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • 71% of teens feel anxious or depressed about school work.
  • 42% of teens feel stressed about online schooling.
  • 60% of teens say feelings of stress have led them to not do their best on a school test.
  • 75% of the average teen’s day is spent in front of a screen, which 52% of teens say is distracting.
  • 67% of teens pretend to feel fine so they don’t worry others.

Whether your teen is back to school in person or learning from a distance, it’s crucial to maintain regular — and productive — communication about school. Here are 5 questions to ask your teenager about school during the pandemic that will actually get them talking.

1. What has been most challenging about your school experience during COVID-19?

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has thrown a number of obstacles at every age group, but teenagers have faced a particular set of challenges.

What was meant to be one of the best periods of their life, chock-full of new classes, sports seasons, and social events, has turned into a much more isolated experience. Whether your teen is attending school in person or virtually, they’re likely facing a variety of disappointments due to the pandemic — and it’s important to validate those feelings.

Ask your teen what’s been tough about school during COVID-19. Are they feeling disconnected socially? Do they get annoyed with wearing a mask all day? Are they experiencing screen fatigue?

Explain that it’s perfectly normal to be frustrated right now. Then, take the time to brainstorm solutions together. Remind them that while extra precautions are critical to keeping them and others safe, they can connect with their friends virtually — and a fun mask can be a great addition to their outfit. If they express difficulties staring at a screen all day, suggest taking periodic breaks or installing an anti-glare screen.

Whatever their challenges are, don’t dismiss them. They may be looking for a good window to talk through their problems with someone, including you.

2. If it were up to you, how would you change your school experience right now?

Teenagers are opinionated, and given the opportunity to express their views, many won’t hesitate. However, while several parties are involved in making school-related decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, teens have often been the least frequently consulted.

Fortunately, this hasn’t always been the case here in Omaha. In June 2020, Omaha Public Schools (OPS) surveyed teachers, families, and students regarding their feelings on school and the pandemic. Among other questions, students were asked what factors would be most important if they were to continue remote learning. They responded with wanting assignments that could be completed at their own pace, live instruction, time for socialization, and frequent feedback on their progress.

When talking to your teen, take a page from the OPS handbook and solicit their opinion. Ask them what they would change and why that would help. If their proposals aren’t feasible, such as foregoing a mask, have a conversation about why. If they suggest alterations that might work, such as more direct instruction, explore possibilities like utilizing online resources, hiring a tutor, or reaching out to their teacher. However, keep in mind that virtual school may limit teachers’ options for the time being.

While you and school leaders ultimately set the rules, involving your teen when possible will demonstrate your willingness to listen and encourage them to express their needs more openly.

3. What has being a student during a pandemic taught you?

By now, it’s pretty clear that this time period is one for the history books. Similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic — the most severe pandemic in recent history — students will likely be reading about COVID-19 many years from now.

Remind your teen that while not necessarily always a positive one, they are living through an important historical time period. And as with most historical events, there’s something to be learned.

Ask your teen what they have discovered while navigating school through the pandemic. Maybe they’ve realized how much can be accomplished virtually — or how exhausting using technology all day can feel. Maybe they have gotten much closer with a small circle of friends versus a broad group of acquaintances. Or maybe they’re simply recognizing how to take pleasure in small moments during a difficult time.

Whether it’s about themselves, their social circles, or the world at large, encourage them to maintain focus on what they’re learning during this unique period in history.

4. How can I help you get the most out of your school experience right now?

Whether your teen is 13 or 18, they’re being asked to display a high level of maturity right now. They are responsible for protecting themselves and others — all while keeping up with school in a less-than-normal situation. All of this can be exhausting.

Ask how you can help them succeed, and be ready to step up when they need you. Teens may boast independence left and right, but they’re still developing the ability to problem solve, make informed decisions, and fully think things through.

Now more than ever, they may need extra support to navigate school effectively. This may be in the form of helping them organize their workload, providing them with a more private workspace, or reaching out to a teacher for advice. As long as they’re reasonable requests, do your best to accommodate their needs when possible.

5. Most Importantly: How Are You Feeling — and Why?

Learning remains just as essential as it always has been, but the stress and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic have been especially tough on teens. Right now, be sure to check in on their mental health and provide them the support they need.

Ask your teen how they are doing, and be prepared to listen. Express empathy about what they’re going through, and remind them that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. By remaining calm and proactive, you can set the tone for a productive conversation.

If you’re concerned about your teen’s mental well-being, talk to their pediatrician, who can provide support either in person or through a telehealth visit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world for everyone. While many teens would much rather be going about their school day without these added concerns, this is their reality for the time being. By asking purposeful questions, you and your teen can talk openly to navigate COVID-19 and school together.

Do you have questions about talking about COVID-19 or school with your teenager? Contact your child’s pediatrician to learn more.

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