What it takes for a teen to thrive during a pandemic

Matt McCarter, a longtime youth engagement professional, offers guidance for parents to help their children thrive during the pandemic. Matt is Vice President & Chief Advancement Officer of the Treasure Valley Family YMCA (until September 21, 2020).

“Young people need a few things to thrive,” says Matt McCarter. “These same things protect them from going down negative paths—whether engaging in underage alcohol use, risky sexual activity, or self-harm.”

The two most important, in McCarter’s mind, are belongingness and capability.


“Belongingness matters a great deal to young people,” explains McCarter.

Adolescents who feel like they’re part of a community, and who believe someone has their back, tend to do better in school—both academically and socially—and in out-of-school activities like sports, music, and the arts. A sense of belonging can come from within a child’s family as well as from their teachers, friends, and other social groups.

It’s no surprise, then, that feeling alone or isolated—as so many teens are during the pandemic—has a negative impact. “When belongingness isn’t present in a young person, risk surfaces, and that risk may certainly include experimenting with drugs and alcohol,” McCarter warns.


Capability describes the feeling of possessing and being recognized for skills and talents that benefit an individual’s community, whether that’s a friend group, family, or even a cause.

“We want a young person to be able to say ‘yes’ to the questions: ‘Am I seen as capable and competent?’ ‘Am I able to contribute something meaningful?’” explains McCarter.

Feeling capable is a significant factor in keeping a child substance-free. “When a teens feels valued, they’re more hesitant to put their health at risk, thereby reducing the impulse to engage in risky behavior,” McCarter says.

What parents can do

There are a number of things parents can do to help their children feel like they belong, even though they may have lost their school group or broader social circle for the moment.

Enable social connections
Many families with younger children allow socially distanced play dates with other families practicing similar COVID-19 safety measures. This could work for pre-teens and teens as well. Can you drive your child to a park for an outdoor, socially distanced hang out with friends once a week? Or provide an outdoor space in your backyard for teens to visit safely?

Encourage your child to think about possibilities for engaging, even if they are virtual. Many schools are offering online clubs, and opportunities like 4-H allow teens to participate solo while staying connected to a larger group.

Be present
“This is an opportunity to deepen the idea of belongingness within the family,” says McCarter. “When parents are emotionally available, they accelerate belongingness between them and their children.”

What does it look like for a parent to be emotionally available?

  • Be intentional about spending time with your child each day. “Whatever your child is doing, go to them,” urges McCarter. “If it’s video games, sit, play, watch, talk—have your kid narrate what they’re doing. This applies to just about any activity. Just sit down and occupy the space where your child is.”
  • Be an active listener. McCarter suggests driving, taking a bike ride, or walking. “When you’re both facing the same way, it feels neutral. In that quiet space, there’s openness and room for the child to go where he or she needs to.” He adds that sitting in silence is fine, too; this may actually bring to the surface a topic your child may not otherwise talk about.
  • Show interest in what your child is interested in, and ask them to show or teach you. McCarter suggests parents tap into the many online resources available right now to learn something new as a family.
  • Encourage your child to be a source of belongingness for someone else. “Happiness research shows that many of the happiest, most creative people in the world are intentional about being generous and helping those around them,” explains McCarter. He says helping others can release endorphins and help youth feel empowered. (Need an idea? Try this Positive Rocks activity.)
  • Encourage your child to reach out when they need help, whether to you or to extended family, a teacher or school counselor, neighbors, or another adult they trust.

Preventing alcohol and drug use during COVID-19

With kids stuck at home, there’s more idle time—and possibly more access to alcohol. Parents can consider removing alcohol from the house or locking it up, suggests McCarter.

And, he offers, simply telling young people to say “no” to drugs and alcohol is not an effective approach on its own. A teen must know there is an alternative that’s just as compelling and exciting—and that’s where belongingness and capability come into play.


  • Regular family meals are a great way to connect with your child. Get ideas for easy recipes, conversation starters, and games to help make your family dinners fun and engaging.
  • In these videos and handouts developed by several Idaho partners, you’ll find tips to help your child navigate stress and anxiety.

Isolation and mental health

Isolation can be detrimental to your child’s (and your) mental health. If you’re struggling or know someone who is, please call the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 208-398-4357.