To protect ourselves from COVID-19, health experts tell us we need to stay home and away from others. This is especially difficult for teenagers, as their stage in life is that of their peers and their family’s independence.
It’s no surprise then that the pandemic has taken a toll on adolescent mental health.
Harder for some teens, easier for others
It was not difficult for everyone. Some of my teenage patients who are stressed by social situations have been relieved to be at home, for example, and the teenagers who get along with their parents and siblings enjoy being with them more. And it certainly helps that many get more sleep. But social isolation and being tied up at home can be very difficult in this age group. For families who experience financial and other stressors, teens often share this burden, which makes matters worse.
It’s important for parents to be proactive – not only by being aware of their teen’s mood, but also doing things to strengthen their teen’s mental health. Not only will the pandemic last for at least several more months, but there is no guarantee that the anxiety and depression that begins during the pandemic will go away when it does. The effects could be long lasting.
Signs to look for
- unusual mood swings
- isolate more than usual. This can be difficult for parents to see, as teens tend to isolate themselves naturally. But if it’s really hard to get them out of their bedroom, or if they interact less with friends, it could be a sign of a problem.
- lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed and are possible to do during the pandemic
- sleeping problems – sleeping a lot less or sleeping a lot more
- concentration or concentration problem
- lower grades
- increased risk behaviors (which could range from drug use to socializing in unmasked groups)
- think about death or suicide. Don’t be afraid to ask your teenager directly about this if they drop a hint. If you get an answer that makes you think they are actually thinking about it, call your doctor immediately. If you can’t reach your doctor, take your teen to the local emergency room. If your teenager refuses to leave, dial 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 medication can make all the difference.
- A “new normal” requires new routines and new ways of being connected and happy. Now that it’s completely clear that our new normal isn’t temporary, talk to your teen about what they can do, within the limits of what’s safe, to take care of their mental health.
- Make sure your teen does not stay in their bedroom all day. With the quarantines and the distant school, it is too possible. Get them out of their rooms – and out of the house – as much as possible. Eat meals as a family, spend time together in the evenings, and create routines to counter the isolation (and give yourself the opportunity to keep tabs on your teenager).
- Make your teenager work. There are a number of ways exercise can make a big difference, including boosting moods and reducing anxiety and depression. Even a walk around the block is something (if you have a dog, give your teenager some dog walker duties).
- Take advantage of all the resources available in your school or community. There may be online or social distance clubs or other activities that your teen might enjoy.
For more information and suggestions, see these resources for adolescent social, emotional, and mental well-being from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Follow me on twitter @drClaire