Adolescence can be complicated. Between keeping up with schoolwork, maintaining a social life, and navigating all the other unique challenges that come with adolescence, teenagers are now struggling with social isolation, feelings of loss, and mental health concerns. Many teenagers feel isolated from close friends and family members, frustrated about the loss of school and daily activities, and discouraged by the loss of milestone celebrations.
Even though it's been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic upended our daily routines, many families across the United States are still living in "survival mode." Teenagers continue to experience emotional changes, from sadness and anger to fear and anxiety. According to a March 2021 national poll, 46 percent of parents say that their teenager has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition in the past year. If left unresolved, these feelings can take a serious toll on teenagers' health and well-being.
So, what can parents do to support their teenagers during the pandemic? Above all else, it's important to have regular conversations with teenagers about the pandemic. To support adolescents amid uncertainty and anxiety, it's essential to validate the emotions that they may be experiencing. Here are some ways to support adolescents (and young adults returning home from college) during the pandemic.
Start with yourself
One of the most important strategies for parents to support their teens is too often ignored: self-care. You need to take care of yourself before you take care of anyone else. We're all familiar with the "put your oxygen mask on first" concept. When parents show teens how to productively manage their stress, they're teaching them how to build resilience, navigate emotional difficulties, and face life's challenges.
Teenagers are still developing the ability to regulate their emotions, so they typically co-regulate with parents and caregivers. In other words, they look to their parents and other trusted adults to see how they're coping. Then, they "borrow" these coping strategies during stressful situations. Until you work on your own mental health, it'll be difficult to start the healing process with your teenager.
Of course, finding time for self-care during the pandemic can feel impossible, especially if you're juggling virtual school with working from home. Some ways for parents to model good self-care for teens include:
- Safely spending time with others (video calls, phone calls, or socially distanced meetings)
- Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep
- Carving out time each day to relax
Encourage your teenagers to de-stress and take part in self-care routines. It's important to show your teen that self-care is a valuable tool to take care of their body and mind.
Validate your teen's feelings
If your teenager is experiencing mental health symptoms, they're not alone. According to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine, one in three teenage girls and one in five teenage boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents also reported negative changes in their teenagers' sleep schedules, increased tendencies to withdraw from family, and aggressive behavior.
No matter what your teen is going through, it's important to listen to them, give them the opportunity to express their feelings, and validate those feelings. Parents play a critical role in helping their teenagers cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. One of the most important things to do is to keep open lines of communication. Ask your teen how they're feeling, and create the space for them to speak honestly so you can provide help when needed.
Even though lending an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on can help your teenager feel better, it might be beyond your ability to improve their emotional and mental health. When psychological symptoms interfere with your teen's ability to function—or if they're having a hard time opening up—it might be time to seek professional help from an experienced teen therapist. Talk therapy provides a safe space for teenagers to express their feelings to a therapist, explore their treatment options, and learn healthy coping skills to navigate stressful situations.
Counseling isn't only beneficial for teenagers, either. If you've noticed that your own mental health has changed, there's power in seeking professional help for yourself. This way, you're setting the example that it's OK to seek professional help to start feeling better. Alternatively, you can try family counseling or online therapy sessions to work on your family's communication skills, discuss your current struggles, and form a deeper connection with your teen.
Encourage healthy lifestyle habits
From virtual school to canceled sports, pandemic-related lifestyle changes have uprooted teens' lives, with many experiencing major disruptions to their normal routines. As more schools have moved toward virtual schooling, many middle school and high school students have adopted more of a college-age lifestyle—staying up late, talking to friends around the clock, sleeping in, and snacking throughout the day. Unfortunately, this loss of structure has taken a toll on adolescents' mental well-being.
Daily routines and structures are essential for your teen's mental health. Routines offer a sense of order that helps combat fear and anxiety amid uncertainty. By promoting healthy sleep hygiene, healthy meals, and regular physical activity, you can help your teen or young adult feel their best. Here are a few tips for re-establishing a daily routine:
- Set a regular sleep schedule. It's a lot easier to handle stress when your body feels good. Help your teen practice healthy sleep hygiene by avoiding electronics before bed and setting regular sleep and wake-up times. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, adolescents between 13 and 18 years old need 8–10 hours of sleep each night.
- Eat a balanced diet. Healthy meals help your teen feel energized, nourished, and ready to face the day. If possible, try setting aside time each night for a healthy family dinner. Get your teen involved by giving them some freedom to create the family meal plan and help prepare the food.
- Promote physical activity. Encourage your teen to get their body moving by going on family walks, bike rides, or hikes. Alternatively, you can help them sign up for an online fitness class, like yoga or pilates. Walking near nature helps keep your mind centered, reminding you that there's a bigger world out there than what's causing you stress.
- Create time to relax. Have you ever woken up worrying about an unfinished project or a phone call you need to make? Lingering to-do list items can drain your energy, making it difficult to relax and unwind—and your teenager is probably facing the same problems. Encourage your teen to schedule tasks on a calendar and set aside time to study and complete their schoolwork. By striking a healthy work-life balance for yourself (and helping your teen do the same), you'll be able to fight stress and burnout.
Support remote schooling
In 2020, many parents reported feeling pressured and confused about how to support their kids with remote learning. With younger students, parents struggle to find fun activities that can double as educational. However, with middle school and high school students, keeping up with expectations from your teen's school can feel challenging, especially if your teen has a mental health condition like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
You can help teens—and young adults in college—create a realistic schedule for their school day. This way, they'll be able to carve out defined periods to study, work on homework, and complete any other assignments. Make sure their schedules have built-in break periods and times for socializing, eating, and exercising. Encourage your teen to complete a session of work, and then reward themself with something relaxing.
Keep a positive outlook
Parents and caregivers should keep an honest, future-oriented, optimistic attitude. That doesn't mean denying that problems exist—it's all about finding creative ways to manage uncertainty and building resilience in the face of adversity. Even though it might feel challenging to keep a positive mindset, focus on what you can control and remind your teens that things will get better.
Part of this mindset includes looking at the reality of the situation and teaching teenagers healthy coping skills. For example, if reading social media headlines is contributing to your teen's stress, remind them that they can't control what appears on social media—but they can control their consumption of negative news stories. Choosing to spend less time scrolling or unfollowing certain accounts can impact their ability to maintain a positive outlook.
Instead of focusing on the negative, encourage your teen to find positive coping strategies—and model your own healthy coping strategies to set an example. Positive coping strategies might include finding an emotional support system that works for you, whether that's reading your favorite book or going for a walk outside. When you show your teenager how to deal with stress in healthy ways, you'll help them cultivate healthy coping skills throughout their lifetime.
Charlie Health is here to support you and your family through these difficult times. We strive to find the right combination of evidence-based mental health treatment and emotional support for every patient on our online platform, so your teen can access high-quality, comprehensive mental health services from the comfort of home.
Our virtual IOP cconnects each client to a licensed therapist that meets their specific needs and goals to provide personalized, tailored mental health treatment. The experienced team of clinicians at Charlie Health is here to help your teen navigate their mental health issues, make healthier choices, and start feeling better. Reach out today.