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The emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on teenagers

A growing body of evidence supports my clinical experience that younger people, high schoolers especially, are having more psychological problems during the pandemic than adults. There are many reasons for this. Adolescents are in the developmental stage of forming a new social world away from their parents. Social needs tend to dominate their lives and yet currently this growth has come to a bit of a standstill. In addition, teenagers are not fully cognitively developed; their moods still dominate compared to the planning and attention that are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, which doesn’t fully develop until about age 25. We all need to create a new and different worldview, but adults have more history and neurological development to take the long view.

We can help support our teens in many ways. Here are some recommendations for how to communicate and foster mental health during this difficult time; many of them will benefit the entire family.

Listen.  Remember that no matter how much teens might protest, they are still dependent on their parents; the family is still the go-to support system. We need to show our teens that they can still count on us; that are we are emotionally there for them. I don’t mean a rose-colored glasses approach, but a realistic and strong view. Listen rather than trying to solve problems and try to check in often. It may be painful to hear teens’ worries because in the current situation, we are all struggling with a variety of anxieties. Communicate that although this is an extremely challenging situation, we can get through it together.

Communicate what you know as well as uncertainty. We’re are all under enormous stress. Our children can see it in us. Rather than try to avoid the sadness, it is better to communicate what you can. For example, if you know that if you get sick a relative or family friend is ready to step in, that will reassure your teens. On the other hand, if your teen wants to know when they will be able to go out in groups, you can reply that you don’t know but are monitoring the guidelines. Clarify that all this hardship is about keeping us as safe as possible.

Remember coping skills and resilience. Although teens are still developing psychologically, they may be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Under this enormous stress, however, they may overlook how they have coped during hard times in the past. You can remind them how, for example, when there was illness in the family, they read certain types of books, baked, or wrote in a journal. Many of us, in the hopes of protecting our children from pain, do not help them learn distress tolerance. Even though we are in the midst of a worldwide trauma, building on a teen’s existing strengths can help increase distress tolerance.

Pay attention.  Most of us are struggling with some level of anxiety or sadness. This is a natural response to a surreal situation. Clinical anxiety or depression is something different. If you observe panic attacks, extreme worry, or avoidance, those are some symptoms of an anxiety disorder.  Similarly, some symptoms of a major depressive episode include feeling sad or empty, feeling hopeless, experiencing changes in appetite or sleep, expressing guilt, and having suicidal thoughts. Remember, too, that in adolescents, irritability may be a more prominent symptom than sadness. Even now, you can contact your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional. Getting in touch with a previous psychotherapist or psychiatrist can be in enormously helpful, even if just for a “check in.” Most psychotherapists are now comfortable using teleconferencing or telephone sessions.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. It is an axiom in mental health that if a parent is feeling psychologically healthy, so will a child.  This is an upsetting time and parenting is one of life’s most challenging (also rewarding) experiences. Try to include some time for yourself for restoration, fun or a conversation with a close friend. Reach out to family, friends, or close co-workers for specific assistance. Some of the tips suggested may not be easy or even possible for you given your economic or social situation. You may be a single parent. You may be a member of a minority group or frontline healthcare professional. If so family, religious groups, neighborhood networks, or community agencies can also provide the support that you need. Please don’t hesitate to get help; we can get through this if we all work together.

Featured Image Credit: Image by rawpixel.com via Freepik

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