Suspending judgement is critical to building a trusting relationship, especially with teens.
When the pandemic started, our Brooklyn group practice moved all of our therapy sessions online. We immediately worried about how to keep our connection to our younger patients intact. We were quickly and pleasantly surprised with positive outcomes, and our therapists began sharing their observations and creative solutions to some of the challenges presented by not being in the same room with our patients.
Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the isolation resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, because they are developmentally at their peak of social connection. Connections with peers and time spent at school provide new ways of relating, finding support, and pathways to deep growth in their sense of themselves and the world.
We’ve been studying effective engagement strategies with adolescents since working together at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens in the early 2000s. Today, Elmhurst Hospital is the epicenter of the NYC outbreak. Here are our tips for engaging teens today and in the months to come:
1) Practice non-judgement.
Just like during an in-person visit, teens are watching closely and observing you to notice if you’re listening, following, and relating to them, their language, their movements, and their concerns. The importance of a non-judgmental stance and a relatable position is crucial in all settings, so keep that at the center of your work.
2) Teens are experts in online socializing.
While we should make every effort to familiarize ourselves with telemedicine platforms, we don’t need to be experts, and can take a position of curiosity and willingness to learn from our young patients.
3) Be creative.
Try bringing the arts into the online space. Platforms like Zoom and Google Meet offer multiple features which provide a variety of ways to communicate. Participants can talk face-to-face, of course, but also share documents, co-create artwork on whiteboards, listen to and watch things online together, chat, and even create virtual environments to meet in. These options bypass feelings of discomfort and/or guardedness by meeting the adolescent’s inclination toward indirect and creative means of communicating.
4) Online doesn’t have to be one-on-one.
Therapists can offer group telehealth sessions to meet the social needs of teen patients. While facilitating a group online presents some limitations, many of the group functions remain intact: hope, universality, sharing of resources, group cohesion, and catharsis. These can happen online as they do in real life.
We no longer view the shift to telemedicine as a challenge, but as an opportunity to advance our understanding of the potential for deep engagement within the context of video visits. The forced isolation caused by COVID-19 brings to the fore the potential for telemedicine through the advancement of policies and practices to allow for access to new forms of connection in virtual and remote spaces.