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Teen Mental Health & COVID-19

Many of you who are reading this are parenting adults. 

You may have processed during this pandemic your own big feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and loneliness.  You may still be taking the emotions as they come each day as we get new information, policies change, and hope and fear of the vaccine coming out swells.  Most of us have found some sense of rhythm, even though the tectonic plates underneath us keep shifting, and we’ve learned to get our needs met through work, online community, etc. We’ve adapted and processed along the way. 

Just as adults have had such big emotions regarding this life altering experience, teens are too. 

The difference is, teens are at a completely different developmental phase than adults.  Teens are in their development where they spend more time with peers and less with parents.  Teens are typically engaging in risk-taking behavior as they explore their new hormonal bodies, learn critical thinking skills, and try on different identities.  Many teens are also going through once in a lifetime events such as graduation, prom, etc.  The pandemic has interrupted, if not halted, many of these experiences and natural behaviors of development. 

Teens are now having to find connection online more than ever, something we know increases the risk of anxiety and depression.  They have lost most sense of routine, and they are removed from interacting with their peers.  Even if they have returned to in-person learning or athletics, many still fear the risk of spreading the virus or bringing it home to vulnerable family members. 

They worry about their futures and what this might mean going forward. 

They wonder, “will things ever go back to the way they were?”  And because none of us know what the future holds, especially now, there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear around what might become.  Many teens are worrying about their friends who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community or come from households where things are really hard, and they can’t be there to support them in the way the normally would… by giving a hug, or sitting together at lunch, or just physically being there. 

These worries weigh heavily on our teens, and they need the support of adults in their life to walk with them during these trying times.  They know adults can’t fix what’s going on, but there are things a grown up can do to help a teen ride the waves of this pandemic.  We’re going on almost a year of this experience in the United States and while there is a glimmer of hope through the vaccine, we’re also seeing new strains of the virus emerge and pandemic fatigue setting in. 

Teens are tired of not going to athletic games, of wearing a mask, of carrying the stress of school, exams, family issues, and fear over the virus.  When too many restrictions are in place, teens tend to rebel, putting them and their families more at risk. 

So how can parenting adults help?

1) Normalize big feelings

Let them know they are not alone it what they are experiencing.  Share your experience of how your big emotions are impacting you.  Notice what’s going on within you and your body, so you can put words to some of the things they’re experiencing.  Describe what anxiety feels like for you.  Label the emotions, so they have a vocabulary to express themselves. 

Does your heart start racing, do you have difficulty going to sleep at night, does your neck ache from muscle tension, is your stomach upset?  Many times, teens may not be aware of the very real physical symptoms they have of struggling with big emotions, so the more you’re able to recognize it, label it, and talk about it within your home, the better off your teen will be.

2) Practice calming exercises together

There are a whole range of ways to calm the mind and the body.  Taking big belly breaths, playing a game, walking around outside, or listening to a song.  Many times, when teens (and adults) struggle with big emotions, they have a hard time getting themselves to do the things they know help. 

They may need support.  Just like you help them as they learn to tie their shoes on their own, you may need to breath with them, stretch with them, or walk with them, as they learn to practice how to calm their mind and body.  It’s important to model this behavior for them too. 

They say: “More is caught than taught,” so how you’re handling yourself is important.  There’s a lot of jokes around parents needing coffee and alcohol to function.  If we’re reaching for those things, our teens will too.  It may be coffee and alcohol or it may be a friend’s Ritalin and weed.  What you do matters and learning your own tools will show your teen, they can do it too.

3) Take a break from devices

Many of the calming exercises listed above are not on a device.  There’s a reason for that.  Our eyes can only take so much of the screen time and we’re on screens now more than ever.  Increased screen time can lead to eye strain, headaches, neck soreness, and irritability. 

We need to give ourselves a break and put the phone, iPad, laptop, remote down.  Eat a meal together.  Like really together.  Have your teen help you cook.  Have them set the table.  Have them serve the family.  Talk about something silly or ask them what’s important to them today. 

I just had a great conversation with a teen about what it was like to meet their teachers in person for the first time this school year just this month after learning from them for an entire semester already.  Guess what?  Turns out it was pretty weird.  And one of the teacher’s can’t even remember her name. 

I can tell you the teacher’s her least favorite one of all.  Can you imagine being in someone’s class for four months, then seeing them every other day, and they don’t know your name?  What a bummer.  And kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.  That entire conversation wouldn’t have happened if we were all sitting on the couch eating dinner while watching a show.  So model putting down the phone, using your senses, and being present.  It makes a world of difference.

4) Do something fun

Laugh.  Have a competition.  Go to a drive through and get ice cream.  Life is really stinking hard right now, and we have to continue to find joy in the small moments.  Help your teen declutter and make space for new room décor.  Get a pet (if it works for your family).  Watch a funny movie or check out Jackbox games.  Laughter is such effective medicine.  It releases endorphins (those feel good chemicals in the brain), helps reduce blood pressure, and just plain feels good. 

Laugh at yourself and be silly.  It’s hard for us grown ups to do in between running kids around, paying bills, and reading the news.  We have the privilege of living in a place, here in the United States, where many of us aren’t having to just survive.  We aren’t breaking our backs day in and day out to find and grow our food.  We have this one life to enjoy and even in the midst of so much chaos, confusion, and terror, the human psyche needs us to find some fun.  

As you can see, there are many ways to support teen mental health during this unprecedented time in history.  If it makes sense for your family, look back at history at other times when the human spirit has prevailed.  Read stories about humans who have survived unthinkable tragedies and talk with your teen about what is the same and what is different about this experience we’re having now. 

Learn from them.  Teens are wicked smart and wise, even though they’re cognitive thinking skills aren’t fully developed.  They have a lot to teach us, and I for one want to listen.  Above all else enjoy this time with your teen.  While it’s been almost a year since this whole pandemic started, it’s also been a year in the life of your teen.  They may be driving now, they may be looking at graduation, they may be thinking about moving out.  The teen years are precious, and it’s up to us to enjoy this time in their life as much as we can.

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