WEDNESDAY, Oct. 28, 2020 — If you’re the parent of a teen, you had plenty to deal with before the pandemic began — dramatic sighs, slamming doors, eye-rolling — and that was only when your teen wasn’t out somewhere with friends.
But the coronavirus pandemic brought your teen’s social life to a screeching halt. No more in-person school, no more sports, no more clubs and definitely no hanging out with friends or a date. Just family time 24/7, and many teens are suffering.
And even as rules have relaxed and kids may be back in school — at least part-time — things won’t be back to normal for a while.
Psychology experts say it’s not surprising that teen mental well-being has been challenged during the pandemic. A teen’s job is to learn to be independent, to start separating from their family and to spend more time with peer groups.
“Teenage years are when kids don’t want their parents around. Developmentally, their peer group is the most important thing to them,” explained P.J. Wenger, a licensed counselor and senior training and consultation specialist at the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J.
“Now, teens are feeling isolated from their friends and they’re missing out on ritualistic events like prom. They’re being let down by cancellations and things that don’t happen. And, there’s such a disparity between parent groups who are being cautious about COVID and parents who say teens just need to get out and be with friends,” Wenger said.
Psychologist Robin Gurwitch, from Duke University School of Medicine, said that adolescents and young adults are creating a greater sense of self and learning about who they are apart from their family, which makes their friends more important.
“Adolescents and young adults are at a higher risk of anxiety and depression. And if they engage in risky behaviors, they have more risk of that, and sadly, we’ve seen a rise in suicidal ideation,” Gurwitch said.
“This is also a time when teens are thinking, ‘What will my future be like?’ And parents need to think about how to support them and keep them looking ahead, rather than looking at everything as being bleak,” she suggested.
How parents can help
“It’s so important right now to acknowledge and validate what they’re experiencing — ‘You’re right, this is totally unfair,'” Gurwitch said.
“Platitudes about how everything will get better aren’t helpful right now. And don’t try to change how they’re feeling or judge their feelings. Whatever they’re feeling is very real to the teen experiencing the emotions,” she explained.
Wenger said if you’re having a hard time getting your teen to open up, take them out for a drive. If they’re learning to drive, it can be a practice session, or if they’re not at that stage yet, suggest a coffee run. It gets them out of the house, and for some unknown reason, teens tend to open up more in the car, she said.
“We need to talk to teens, and not in an interrogating manner, but in a curious manner. ‘What’s difficult for you right now?’ and then give them time to answer. When we get quiet, teens will talk,” Wenger said.
Both experts said creating and sticking to a routine is helpful — not just for teens, but for everyone in the household. This also helps ensure that your teen gets some sleep. Without the structure of the school day, Gurwitch said teens may fall into more erratic sleep patterns. A lack of sleep definitely won’t help their mood.
Wenger said to limit TV time, particularly the news. “Kids are listening, even when you think they’re not,” she said.
If they’ve seen a disturbing story on the internet or TV, like a story about a teen dying from COVID, Wenger suggested explaining the steps you’re taking as a family to stay safe. “Here’s how we know to help ourselves — don’t go into large crowds, keep a safe distance from others, wear a mask,” she said.
Parents might be tempted to limit internet access, too, but Gurwitch suggests that it might be helpful to relax some of your normal rules about social media use right now.
“The old rules about spending time on devices need to be reconsidered. Right now, it may be the only way your teens can connect with their friends,” she noted.
Parents may get concerned if teens spend hours locked in their rooms, but Gurwitch said this isn’t necessarily a bad sign. “Teens need some privacy and quiet time. They may be talking to friends or listening to music. As long as they still join you for mealtime and are willing to participate in conversations and family activities, like family movie night, it’s OK,” she said.
Both experts also stressed how important exercise is — even just going for a walk. Wenger also suggested going for a bike ride, trying an exercise video on YouTube or getting on TikTok to try the latest dance challenge. These kinds of activities teach kids that there are steps they can take right now to feel better, Wenger noted.
Teens can also download apps for meditation or mindfulness, Gurwitch said.
Watch for troubling signs
But what if your teen needs more than a simple mood boost? Knowing if your teen is just being a teen or is in trouble and needs help can be tough, especially now.
“Are they setting goals for the future? Are they still interested in the same things they were before? If they liked to play guitar before COVID, do they still do that, or do they say they don’t care anymore? A change in interest could be a sign they’re having trouble,” Gurwitch said.
Wenger said that apathy and loss of interest can be signs, especially if teens start feeling like school doesn’t matter, and if they start missing classes.
“An extreme change in mood or a change in behavior, if they don’t want to talk to friends anymore, if they don’t care about how they look and are having more conflicts, it’s time to check in with them. Parents are often afraid to ask questions like, ‘Are you depressed?’ but it’s OK to have that conversation,” Wenger said.
If your teen needs help, Wenger said that both telehealth and in-person therapy are options.
Learn more about helping teens and young adults during the COVID pandemic from the Child Mind Institute.
P.J. Wenger, L.P.C., M.F.T., senior training and consultation specialist, Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, Rutgers University, Piscataway, N.J.; Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., psychologist, Duke University and the Center for Child and Family Health, Durham, N.C.
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