This has been a crazy, stressful year for everyone —but of all the members of your family, your teenagers might be having the hardest time. Not only are they experiencing significant disruption as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, but they're also in the midst of an incredibly important developmental phase of life, which can't be placed on pause with everything else. Up until now, momentum had been pushing them toward independence, to socialize more and dream about future possibilities, as well as to put plans into motion for what comes next. And then — screech!— life slams the breaks on all of this.
But social distancing, virtual schooling, and worrying about the health and financial wellbeing of their family aren't the only challenges teens are facing right now. Americans are entrenched in discussions of racism and police brutality, inequality and politics. All of these add to a teen's sense of uncertainty, which is why what new data suggests on how young people are doing emotionally makes perfect sense.
A survey of 1,500 teens conducted by the Harris Poll in conjunction with the National 4-H Council in May found that 7 in 10 are struggling with their mental health during the pandemic; a third are feeling symptoms associated with clinical anxiety or depression on a daily basis. If this is news to you, it might be because 67% said they want to keep their feelings to themselves. What's more, 45% spent time alone trying to ignore their feelings as best as they could, including scrolling social media or or otherwise spending time online through much of their days. They also report turning to other, more dangerous, coping mechanisms, including drugs.
So how can you be there for your older child (especially because you may be struggling yourself)? Good Housekeeping reached out to other parents of adolescents and mental health professionals specializing in teen development to help you and your family get through this time of turmoil. Check out the guide below and hang in there — it's not just you.
Challenges that teens are facing:
The amount of stress caused by social isolation depends on a child’s age and their personality, explains Lea Lis, M.D., a board-certified adult and child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids. David Hill, 56, a dad of two teenagers outside Washington, D.C., learned that his 13-year-old daughter's most profound challenge was the lack of everyday interaction with her friends at school — she especially missed participating in club volleyball, as athletics is her passion.
Zoom and FaceTime, of course, aren't a 1:1 replacement for hanging out with friends outside the home (and virtual volleyball isn’t athletic at all). "They don't get the same level of immediate endorphin release from the phone,” says Dr. Lis. “It's all about facial expressions, touching, and nonverbal communication — they're not getting those right now." For older teens, the pandemic may be getting in the way of their romantic relationships — and first sexual encounters usually happen in the teen years, according to Dr. Lis — so the social distancing required by the pandemic "is beyond devastating" for them. "This is all new and exciting for them, but they're being told they can't see their person," she explains.
That said, your teenager’s devices are some of the best tools they have for staying in touch with other humans during the pandemic, says Dr. Lis, so you may want to afford them a little leeway with screens right now.
Adapting to academics at home
At all ages, staying engaged in online coursework while sheltering at home can be an immense challenge — it was for Hill's son, who finished the last semester of his freshman year of college in his parent's basement. "He seemed to be very focused through the end of the semester, and I was under the assumption that he was putting in the same amount of effort here that he did at school," Hill says, adding that his son's university went to a "pass-fail" grading system to take some of the pressure off of the students. "But he ended up telling me that he actually slacked off… he wasn't as engaged with his academics as he was on campus."
Parents are often less involved in monitoring teens' schoolwork as they leave middle school, so it's even harder to get a sense of how older kids are faring at home. But many teens are finding it difficult to study in a bedroom or living room that isn’t designed for academic focus. And lots of high schoolers weren’t yet that great at autonomously navigating their coursework even before the pandemic, and relied on teacher support, exposure to their friends' study habits and the structure of a classroom to stay on track. Dr. Lis points out that part of what kids learn in high school is to shape their "executive functioning," and the ability to consciously engage in lectures and other tasks throughout the day without a parent's help.
What does this mean for you? You may need to help your teenager stay organized and engaged more than you normally would at this age, and be more on top of communications from the school to be sure your child doesn’t miss anything important.
Responding to politically charged discourse
Amid all the other struggles that teens are facing — including health crises and financial hardships that may be potentially affecting their family members — talking about racism at a national level can be triggering, especially for Black teens. Yocasta Brens-Watson, 51, a mother to two Black children in Union, New Jersey, struggles to balance being gentle in how she discusses inequality and systemic racism with her 15-year-old son and making sure he is good and aware of social and physical risks in his surroundings, she says: "The most heartbreaking part is that by having this conversation very early on, we're robbing them of something; they don't have the luxury of being children for as long as their white counterparts do."
Older teens may be attending protests and having deep discussions about race with their friends. Hill's older son has participated in Black Lives Matter protests in his hometown and also has engaged in digital activism. But some younger teens, like Hill’s daughter, who is six years younger than her brother, may have had earlier exposure to these discussions than kids who are just a few years older. "We've been able to have conversations with her as well because [a teacher] brings things to her in class that, we were like, 'Wow, she's learning about this in the sixth grade,'" Hill says, adding that his son wasn't afforded the same exposure only a few years earlier.
"Teens today tend to be a lot more political than we realize — and I think they're very distressed by what's going on," adds Dr. Lis, who says there hasn't been a teenager in her clinic that "hasn't chewed my ear off" about racism at the local and national level since protests began. "It's something I've become aware of… A new level of anger. Anger can be useful, but most of the time it's very destructive on its own."
Having frank conversations about race with your teenagers, and exploring the topic together, rather than trying to gloss over or minimize what’s going on with the intention of sparing them, is really important, experts say.
Loss of meaningful coming-of-age ceremonies
For high school students — especially those graduating and starting college or work — there have been so many standard rituals (sports championships, prom, graduation) that have been canceled or rendered virtual. Missing them may have a big impact in how they value their experiences in the long run, Dr. Lis says, in addition to all the feelings of sadness or mourning after missing these moments they've been looking forward to for years.
Parents and schools have been trying to pick up the slack by marking these milestones and making them special for their children, but it’s not quite the same. What’s important here is to allow your children to be upset or disappointed that things aren’t ideal, but then help them focus on the important part: that they worked hard to graduate, for example, and achieved great things, even without the ceremony.
How teens react to stress
Some teens can shake off stress by running, talking to friends, or listening to music — all while others may have a much tougher time. A lot depends on their family life, age, cognitive abilities, emotional maturity, personality, physical health, and religious and spiritual beliefs, says Joy Neumann, PsyD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and a pediatric neuropsychologist at Children's Health in Dallas. "Although a 10-year-old child may experience the same realistic stressor as a 16-year-old child, the way they process it will vary given the difference in cognitive development," Neumann says.
Brens-Watson realized just how much stress her 15-year-old was dealing with during a quiet moment at home. "I was just talking to him about things [on the news] and he comes over to give me a big hug — which he doesn’t normally do," she explains. "I hugged him back and was ready to move on… But he held onto me. Before I knew it, I could feel he was crying; I was nervous, I was scared, I couldn't understand what's going on with my kid." Her son soon clarified: "He said, 'Mom, I don't want to leave the house. I don't want to move away. It's too dangerous."
- An increase in nightmares or dwelling on stressful mental images — even things that may not have actually happened just yet.
- An immediate or long-term increase in negative emotions, including sadness, hopelessness, anger, or plain irritability. Certain triggers may increase the volatility of teens' emotions, and you may not even know what these triggers are.
- Feeling anxious about school, friendships, family finances, or even about what will happen once their parents go back to work.
- Inability to focus. Teens can also become more forgetful or apathetic about household routines and chores.
- Experiencing distress around physical triggers, or the physical reminder of stress or trauma experienced this year — meaning a place, person, or a visual cue. Teens can easily become agitated and overtly distressed while this trigger is nearby or present.
How can you help teens through mental health challenges:
If you know that your teen is facing any of the stressors above or have noticed some of the reactions above yourself, it's time to directly engage with your child. Leading mental health experts recommend trying the following tactics to help your teen:
- Validate their feelings: “There’s a certain intensity to how teenagers see the world,” says Sarah Nayeem, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “But we want to make sure that there are safe adults at home whom they can explore those really intense feelings with.” Let them know you see they are angry (or sad, or lonely, or scared) and are here to listen.
- Be honest: There’s a lot to be worried about right now. Some teens might be anxious about slipping grades as they're home-schooled, while others are scared they’ll be profiled and stopped by police. “Parents should avoid lying or ‘bending the truth’ when the source of a child’s fear or anxiety is a true existing threat,” Neumann says. “Help them identify what they can do or say to feel prepared rather than defeated. If you’re unsure of what to say in the moment, it’s okay to admit that you don’t have the answer but that you will think about it more and follow up with them later.”
- Don't shy away from tough conversations: In the same Harris Poll, 75% of teens said they feel that talking about mental health issues creates a stigma. So they may rely on you to kick off a hard conversation. "At 17, 18, 19, you should be talking about politics and real issues — you should spar with them, let them vent, allow them to get their feelings out and express themselves," Dr. Lis advises. "Otherwise, they're going to internalize their anger or sadness, regardless of the topic, and turn it against you, the parent. They may assume you don't understand them and it's just going to alienate you from them."
- Come up with a game plan together: As a family, think about what your next steps should be, and actively participate in them together, Dr. Lis says. Does your child want to write a letter to a congressperson? Do you want to safely attend a protest with them? Do you want to each read a book about racism and have a discussion afterward? Are they asking you for guided help in studying? Do they need to have an outside, distanced visit with a friend to talk it out? You should empower the teen to decide while also working to minimize any risks along the way.
- Monitor your teen’s social media habits: This can be tricky to do, but it’s important. “There’s a lot of graphic violence out there right now that can be really traumatic, especially for Black teens,” Dr. Nayeem says. Try to keep track of what your teenager is following and posting so that you can anticipate problems and protect them.
- Be a role model: Your child is watching your every move, and he or she is going to be the one continuing this tough work when you may have to step away in the future. Embrace all the safety precautions you can in your household. And make sure your child sees firsthand how responsible adults can stand up for what they believe in and disagree with others in a respectful manner.
- Do fun things together: You shouldn’t only be bonding over serious discussions. Don’t forget to set aside time to spend time together hiking, drawing, playing board games, listening to music, or even going for a simple morning walk.
When your teen might need more support:
As all parents of adolescents know, a certain amount of prickliness, a need for privacy and even poor judgment are baked into this phase of life. But add limited contact with friends, too much time with you (sorry!), and none of the usual fun outlets — sports, summer plans, beloved school clubs — on top of the usual challenges that teenagers face can put an already vulnerable kid on shakier ground. It's why we wanted to separate what’s normal teen surliness from what might be a warning sign that your kid needs some help.
If you see signs like the ones below only occasionally, they’re probably appropriate reactions to stress, and your usual at-home support will help them through. But if what you're doing isn't working, or if you notice them frequently or continuously for a period of two weeks or more, don’t wait, says Glenn Saxe, M.D., a professor at NYU's School of Medicine specializing in child psychology. Ask your child's doctor or school counselor for a referral to a mental health professional:
- Major changes in appetite or sleep: If your teen doesn't seem interested in food at all or is eating more than usual, that could be a sign of depression, says Hall Brown. Sleep schedules may also be impacted by clinical anxiety: Sleeping less than 7 hours a night or more than 11 — especially if this persists for two weeks — may also be a cause for concern.
- Emotional outbursts: Anger is healthy and expected when events like parties, proms, or sporting seasons are canceled, but frequent outbursts and tempers that seem out of control may require treatment. Do they take out their stress on their surroundings, say by throwing things or punching walls? Do they behave recklessly, driving fast or walking alone at night? It may be a way of checking out under stress, Dr. Saxe says.
- Unexplained physical changes: Some teens may feel sick or develop nervous habits, says Hall Brown. They may have stomaches or headaches, or develop a nervous tick, including picking fingernails, or pulling their hair or eyebrows, as examples. Also, watch out for signs they've lost all interest in how they look — wearing the same unwashed clothes for weeks, skipping showers despite body odor, or not brushing their teeth.
- Any signs of physical trauma. Unexplained cuts, bruises, or frequent accidents may be a sign of self-abuse among children, Dr. Saxe says.
- Be especially on guard if your kid has previously struggled with a mood disorder or substance abuse issue. It’s likely that the stress from the pandemic, or exposure to all the other strife in the world right now could cause relapse or for symptoms to flare, adds Dr. Saxe. Establish an open line of communication between your teen's care provider and yourself so that treatment can resume remotely.
Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and get help, even when things calm down—there’s no shame in asking questions and seeking help if you’re not sure what’s going on with your kid. In a crisis or an immediate emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK, or text “NAMI” to 741-741. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has also established resources for those at greater risk during the pandemic. Lastly, there are resources supporting the mental health of Black, indigenous and people of color specifically, including Mental Health America.
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