As a clinical psychologist with a specialty in working with teenagers, I can tell you from my own observations and reading, many of today’s teens are struggling with their mental health.
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Over the last several months, I have witnessed an increase in anxiety and depression amongst many of the teens I treat. Much of the increase in the troubling symptoms I’m seeing are related to the side effects of living through a pandemic. While adults have the core, predictable components of their life to rely on- things such as family responsibilities, jobs, and their independence – many teenagers have had the key elements that make up their life ripped away from them.
Teen life revolves around going to school, extracurriculars, and spending time with friends. None of those are accessible right now in the ways that they had been, leaving many teenagers with big pockets of unfilled time and a sense of self that is floundering. At a point in their development when teens are building their identities- which happens through their interactions with the world- many of these activities are unavailable. They are struggling. It’s hard.
Socially isolated and disengaged from the things that give them purpose (school, acting, sports…), many teens are turning to the little that is at their fingertips: video games and their phones. While in moderation, they can actually be beneficial to wellbeing, as studies have shown. However, in excess, both these elements are destructive to mental health.
In my observations, social media use often reinforces feelings of loneliness and frustration that are already there. Teens are watching some of their friends ignore social distancing guidelines. This leaves them feeling angry at their parents, their friends, and the world. Teens often end up playing video games for hours on end, and while there is a positive social component to playing with friends from all around the world, this also acts as a negative and magnetic force…because there is always someone available somewhere to join the game.
Which brings me to sleep schedules. Many teens have found themselves on radically thrown off sleep schedules. Several are staying up most of the night and sleeping during the day. I have woken up many a teenager when I called them for their morning session- and it is always the same story: “Sorry. I was up until 4 am playing video games.”
When sleep is thrown off, so is, you got it, their eating habits. Snacking through the night, and not eating in the day (because, sleep) is a recipe for not feeling well physically or emotionally.
So, needless to say, not sleeping well, not eating well, mostly sedentary, pulled from their friends and activities- many teens right now are stressed.
That said, and I think it’s important to offer this balanced picture, I have also witnessed tremendous resilience in the teens I work with. There is toughness even in those that are having a hard time. The two are not mutually exclusive. The very same teen can have moments of hardiness and creativity, mixed with days where they are tearful, worried, and feeling lost and angry. These feelings of resilience interface with feelings of hopelessness and defeat, making for a confusing emotional landscape for many teenagers.
Now that virtual school is starting, hopefully, many teens are getting themselves back on a schedule. However, while it seems that the restart of virtual school in September has been helpful, it doesn’t provide the same social opportunities and accountability as going into a brick-and-mortar school does.
So how can you, as a parent or caregiver of a teen, support them right now? The following are some tips that may be useful in being there for your teenager:
1. Check in on them. This one may sound intuitive, but it is surprising how so many of us parents are overwhelmed by what we have on our plates, that we fall into the perception that no news is good news. This is not the case. No news might just be an indicator of a teen that is withdrawn and depressed because of this pandemic. Check-in with them. Let them know you are here for them. And this is important- don’t push it. This may further distance your teen away from you. Just a little drop-in comment can do wonders in letting your teen know that you are there and noticing them.
2. Listen to them. When your teen comes to you upset- don’t jump right in with giving perspective and advice. This is something many parents are drawn to do, and unfortunately for everyone, this only silences their teen. If I had a dollar for every teen that has told me they just want to be heard- I’d be able to buy myself a lot of Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Lattes. Especially now, when there aren’t a ton of solutions- just “being” with your teen’s sadness and loss is especially important. Not only will it build your bond, but it also models for them the very important skill of allowing ourselves to notice and feel our feelings. For example, if you’re teen mentions to you how frustrated they are about not being able to attend football games or homecoming, responding in a reflective and validating way can go a long way. Something along the lines of “I really hear your disappointment. I know that feeling, it’s hard to feel that way and deal with all the loss right now. Is there more you want to tell me about that?” A fix-it model would sound something like this: “But you know there are still other things going on! And you still have two more years left to high school, so you’ll have next year.”
3. Ask if your teen would like perspective, coaching, or advice. With the above said- you are their parent. You do have more perspective and wisdom because of your age, experience, and objectivity. So, after you have listened to your child- maybe later in the day or the next, ask them if they’d like some perspective. The keyword here is “ask.” If you say something like, “I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday, may I offer you some thoughts I had on it?”, your teen will be more receptive to hearing you than if you just start talking and telling them what you think (you have a greater chance of defensiveness here).
4. Encourage socialization. Outdoor picnics. Walks. Something that feels safe and is within guidelines. These kids need their friends. In real life (not only virtually).
5. Brainstorm with them about a project they can do. A client of mine told me about a friend whose parents got him an old fishing boat off of Craigslist so he can tinker with it and fix it. Now, while not everyone has space or money for a fishing boat- a creative project to work on can be very helpful. I’ve seen teens sew, start commission artwork, and open Etsy shops where they sell dog leashes they have made. Having a creative outlet can both build mastery and create purpose- two big components of mental well-being.
6. Limit screen time. I know everyone knows this, but it’s really important, so I thought I’d leave it here. Yes- you will probably get pushback, but after the adjustment period, I hope you will find a happier, more wholesome teen. When they open up more free time by putting down their phones, there is space for other more fulfilling activities.
7. Encourage exercise or exercise together. Things I have heard from clients that have been nice: family walks, bike rides, or weight lifting. Find whatever works for your teen and your family, but as most of us parents know from our own life experiences, moving our bodies is a precursor to mental health.