To keep us safe from COVID-19, health experts tell us that we need to stay home and away from other people. This is particularly hard for teens, because their stage of life is all about their peers and becoming independent from their family.
So it's not surprising that the pandemic has been hard on the mental health of teens.
Harder on some teens, easier on others
It hasn't been hard on all of them. Some of my teen patients who get stressed by social situations have been relieved to be home, for example, and teens who get along with their parents and siblings enjoy being with them more. And it certainly helps that many are getting more sleep. But social isolation, and being tethered to home, can be very tough in this age group. For families that are experiencing financial and other stressors, teens often share that burden, which makes things worse.
It's important for parents to be proactive — not just in awareness of their teen's mood, but also in doing things to strengthen their teen's mental health. Not only is the pandemic likely to be with us for at least several more months, there's no guarantee that anxiety and depression that start during the pandemic will go away when it does. The effects could be long-lasting.
Signs to look for
- moodiness that is unusual
- isolating more than usual. This may be hard for parents to see, as teens tend to self-isolate naturally. But if it's really hard to get them out of their room, or they are interacting less with friends, that could be a sign of a problem.
- losing interest in activities they used to enjoy, and that are possible to do during the pandemic
- sleep problems — either sleeping much less or sleeping much more
- trouble with focus or concentration
- dropping grades
- increase in risky behaviors (which could be anything from drug use to socializing in groups without masks)
- thinking about death or suicide. Don't be afraid to ask your teen directly about this if they drop a hint. If you get an answer that makes you think that they are indeed thinking about it, call your doctor immediately. If you can't reach your doctor, bring your teen to your local emergency room. If your teen won't go, call 911.
What parents should do to help
- Don't ignore any of these symptoms! Mental health is just as important as physical health. Call your doctor. Counseling, and sometimes medications, can make all the difference.
- A "new normal" demands new routines and new ways of being connected and happy. Now that it is abundantly clear that our new normal is not temporary, talk with your teen about what they can do, within the restrictions of what is safe, to take care of their mental health.
- Make sure that your teen doesn't stay in their room all day. With quarantines and remote school, this is all too possible. Get them out of their room — and out of the house — whenever possible. Have family meals, spend time together in the evenings, and otherwise build some routines that counteract isolation (and give you a chance to keep tabs on your teen).
- Get your teen active. Exercise can make a big difference in all sorts of ways, including boosting mood and easing anxiety and depression. Even a walk around the block is something (if you have a dog, assign your teen some dog-walking duties).
- Take advantage of any resources being offered in your school or community. There may be online or social-distanced clubs or other activities that your teen might enjoy.
For more information and suggestions, check out these resources aimed at the social, emotional, and mental well-being of teens from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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