2020 hasn’t been kind to any of us, but it has been especially hard for teens. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, 7 out of 10 teenagers report struggling with mental health issues, according to a recent survey.
Cut off from their normal routines and outside sources of support, teens have been more vulnerable to depression and anxiety than ever before. Not only can these conditions also show up as physical symptoms, but in some cases, they’ve resulted in self-harming behaviors, including substance abuse and suicide.
In the midst of it all, child and adolescent psychologists have been overextending themselves in order to help. “The need for services for teens is so great,” says Dr. Kristin Kleppe, founder of Orange County Health Psychologists. Kleppe says she has seen child and adolescent psychologists working up to 60 hours a week to make sure they can meet the growing needs of their young clients — many of whom are new to therapy.
“Kids who were healthy are now struggling for the first time, so it’s important to make sure they don’t end up with lifelong conditions,” says Kleppe. “As for those who were already struggling, they’re now worse.”
Why the Pandemic Hits Teens Especially Hard
Your teenager may be suffering emotionally during this time for many reasons. Here are some of the most common ones, with steps you can take as a parent or mentor.
2020 was meant to be a milestone year for many teens, who may have eagerly looked forward to graduation ceremonies, proms, theater, or sports competitions. The pandemic robbed them of these experiences, leaving them with a sense of profound loss and sadness instead of happy memories.
As a parent, you might want to find a way to make it okay, but you can’t. Instead, the better thing to do is treat it the same as you would any other loss — because the truth is, it can feel as serious to them as a death, and it will never be recaptured. “What can you say? They’ll have another prom? They won’t,” says Kleppe. “It’s important to allow children to grieve. Normalize it and allow them to mourn.”
Lack of Resilience or Optimism
One key thing to remember is that teens don’t have the same level of life experience that you do. This means they have a much harder time putting negative events in perspective. “When a 12-year-old goes through something challenging, they’ll likely see it as bleak or hopeless — even though as an adult, you know that hard times pass,” says Kleppe.
Part of this has to do with brain development. Our kids’ brains aren’t fully developed and won’t be for many years to come. In fact, your child’s brain won’t fully mature until the age of 27 or 28. Because of this, kids tend to see things as pervasive and bleak; it’s all-or-nothing. It also affects their time perception, making the events of 2020 feel permanent to them.
To help with this, be patient, loving, and kind. Also, do what you can to educate your teen on the idea that tough times don’t last — but tough people do. Search for books, podcasts, TED talks on optimism. Start having family meetings to discuss how everyone is feeling. Introduce them to a mentor/coach who can exemplify resiliency or optimism. And of course, therapy can also help. To further explore therapy options, contact our office to speak with a skilled provider.
No Distractions or Coping Strategies
Think about how things used to be pre-COVID: When there was something bothering your teen, they could at least go to school and take their mind off it by playing sports or spending time with their friends. But they can’t do that now, which means they have fewer outlets for their feelings.
So what can you do to help your teen work through stress? “Think about any creative ways to replicate what school offers; look for healthy distractions,” says Kleppe. For instance, to get more exercise, you might make a new habit of getting outdoors in nature as a family or try some YouTube dance tutorials together. Any new project that encourages you to spend one-on-one time could also help, such as planning special dinners, researching your family tree, doing arts and crafts projects, making YouTube videos or podcasts. or even make-believe financial investing.
When You Need More Help
For more ideas about how to help your teen through this stressful time in their lives, check out the book, Freeing Your Child From Anxiety: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries, and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life – from Toddlers to Teens, by Tamar Chansky. Filled with simple solutions and coping tools for the young anxious mind, it can be a game-changer for both you and your teen.
That being said, helping your teen through a time like this is much easier said than done. Between the demands of work, homeschooling, other children, and your own mental fatigue, it can feel overwhelming. That’s why next month, we’ll tackle how parents can ease the burden on themselves with healthy ways to manage stress and maintain a positive mindset. To receive our future posts, subscribe to our free newsletter. The link is at the bottom of the Orange County Health Psychologists’ homepage.
Finally, if you decide therapy is the best option for your teen, we’re here to help. Call us today at 949.528.6300 or email info@OCHealthPsych.com for a therapist recommendation.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists