Teen Mental Health and COVID-19
Being a teenager is challenging under even the best of circumstances. These are the years of life where many of the most significant events occur. Things like graduation, first dates, first loves and first break-ups, proms, and the list goes on. Unfortunately for teens in 2020, during the time of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there are even more challenges than usual.
Many schools throughout the United States have been closed, and most significant events have been canceled. As a result, many teens are missing out on some of the biggest moments (to date) in their lives as people work together to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Yes, there will be more events that are life-changing, but the events they will likely be unable to experience here and now, are not replaceable. In addition to life events, many teens are also missing out on the everyday moments they can no longer experience as most of the United States is operating under stay at home orders. Moments like chatting with friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, or just being part of a team, group, or class.
For many teens today, life is changing daily and even more drastically than what would be considered typical for a teen. It is not surprising that your teen may find themselves feeling anxious, isolated, and depressed or disappointed.
Although they are not alone, they are likely to feel as though they are and their standard coping mechanisms they commonly turn to during “normal” times. Below we have listed some things you as a parent can do to help them develop (or maintain) healthy coping mechanisms, practice self-care, and to look after their mental health during this extraordinary time.
Recognize their anxiety and increased feelings of depression are entirely normal
Throughout the United States, schools of all levels have closed for the duration of the school year. Also, social media and television news seem to be full of alarming (and downright terrifying) headlines reporting on death tolls and rising cases of COVID-19 in all areas of the population. Our lives are in constant flux, and many adults are anxious and nervous. If, as an adult, you are concerned, imagine how your teen may feel at the moment. It is important to recognize that anxiety is normal during a situation such as this. Now is not the time to belittle anxiety or try to help your teen to “forget” about what is happening outside their home. Instead, allow them to vent on their anxiety while understanding there is likely little you are going to be able to do to fix or make this better.
You can’t replace the losses they are feeling or experiencing at the moment thanks to COVID-19. You cannot replace the time they are losing with friends. However, you can help them to be sure they are receiving their information from reliable sources so as not to increase their levels of anxiety with false or inaccurate information.
First, remember that increased anxiety is normal right now. It is ok to feel this way as anxiety is one way our minds help alert us to threats and consequently take the appropriate measures necessary to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, anxiety about the COVID-19 pandemic may, in some ways, be mildly beneficial as it will likely spur people to make better decisions such as more frequent hand washing or avoiding contact with large groups of people. Also, help your teen to remember that unpleasant as this may be, their choosing to social distance and follow stay at home suggestions will help to keep their loved ones and friends safe as well as hopefully flatten the curve more quickly, allowing for a return to what is considered normal.
Many psychologists will tell you that when you are experiencing a chronically challenging situation, it is beneficial to divide the problem into two categories. The first category being those things you can do something about, and the second category being those things you cannot change. Unfortunately, the second category is likely to fill quicker than the first right now. Although that creates additional anxiety and feelings of depression, one thing that can be done is to create distractions to help cope.
Instead of focusing on the growing list of things that cannot be changed because of COVID-19, take a moment to address things you can do instead. Consider things such as homework, watching a movie, reading a favorite book, or even taking a warm bath or shower. These and many others are ways to positively cope and put a little balance back in your teen’s day to day activities.
Getting outside is also highly suggested for mental health boosts. Although many places are operating under stay at home orders, they are not necessarily restricting getting outside in nature. If you live in an area where you can get outside while still maintaining safe social distance, it is wise to do so. Go for a walk or run, take the dog outside to play, or even go for a hike. Fresh air and exercise are excellent ways to distract oneself from all of the negativity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, exercise is a healthy coping mechanism for anxiety, depression, and trauma, all of which can be elevated during a time when there is so much disruption in how we live our lives.
Find new ways to connect with friends and family
Fortunately, we live in an era where technology has made communication easier than ever. Social distancing and school closures have made spending time with friends and loved ones nearly impossible. In many cases, large group gatherings have been canceled (or rescheduled), resulting in the cancellation of proms, sports seasons, graduations, and many other events that are generally hallmark events during the end of the school year. For teens who are seniors this year, the COVID-19 pandemic may be particularly challenging (and even traumatizing) as these teens will miss out on events that cannot be replaced. They are also missing what is likely to be the last few months spent with friends they have been with for the last thirteen years. All things considered, it is not surprising that your teen may be feeling disconnected, isolated, and more emotional than usual.
During these times, social media and virtual communication options are more important than ever. Your teen can easily connect with friends and family (or even social supports or therapy providers) via apps on their iPad, smartphone, or laptop. They can talk to and “see” those they may be missing through skype or zoom or a host of other virtual communication apps. Some teens (and adults) have even help Netflix viewing parties as a way to be together for movie night while still staying safely socially distant.
As a parent, it is valuable to keep in mind that this connection time is indeed vital to the emotional and mental well being of your teen during this time. However, unmonitored and uncontrolled access to social media and screen time is not healthy and may increase anxiety. Help your teen to set limits which allow them to communicate with friends and loved ones but also keep their eyes off the screen during the day as well. This will also help to control the amount of negative social media and news they see each day.
For your teen, elevated anxiety and perhaps moodiness is to be expected when their standard routine has been thrown completely off. Another healthy coping technique is to have them take time each day to focus on themselves and self-care. Perhaps there is a new hobby they have wanted to try, such as playing an instrument, sewing, or cooking. Now is as good a time as any to give these things a try. There are a host of online programs that can help them learn the basics. Many of these programs are heavily discounted or even free of charge, as companies are trying to help people manage the stresses associated with being at home. Maybe they have always wanted to learn a foreign language or read books which they are usually too busy to read. Several online learning outlets are also offering free or reduced programs as well as free or reduced online books.
Now is also a great time to practice self-care. What are some of the things your teen likes to do to decompress? Do they normally exercise or play sports? Do they normally read a book or take a bath? Whatever the option, now is a great time to practice what they know helps them to relax or maybe even try something new. Practices such as yoga or guided meditation are great for relieving anxiety and helping settle the mind. Many online programs are free of charge that offer guided meditation as well as yoga or other stretching practices. Finally, several fitness companies have moved their programming to the internet so people can access it from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment that is abnormally stressful and challenging for many people. Many social media feeds and the daily news have become very overburdened with negative news and information about the pandemic, and it seems as though there is very little light at the end of the tunnel.
During these times, it is imperative to turn to healthy coping mechanisms when events or experiences occur, which are triggering. Unfortunately, some of your teens “go-to” coping strategies such as a therapy group or a talk with a counselor may be more challenging during social distancing and isolation.
Encourage the use of healthy coping through the use of virtual communication, self-care, and maintaining connections with those who can help your teen through these challenging times. Also, be sure they know you are available for them as well and that you understand they may be struggling. Again, know you are not likely to be able to fix what they are experiencing.
Sadly, many of their emotions are not something you, as a parent, will be able to put a Band-Aid on to alleviate the emotional pain. However, you can listen and be a sounding board, and in some cases, that may be the most beneficial coping mechanism of all. You can also learn more about teen anxiety disorder treatment options.