Boosting your teen’s mental health during a pandemic

Being stuck at home with nothing to do during a pandemic can put a strain on one’s mental well-being—and teens are no exception.

“I’m hearing more from teenagers that they feel they are losing their youth,” said Dr. Lydia Lopez, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at University Health System. “They say it’s not fair.”

While her patients often already have anxiety or other mental health and behavioral issues, Lopez says any child or teenager may develop negative feelings they aren’t able to express easily. Instead of going to parents with questions, worries and difficult emotions, many kids close themselves off.

At this age, teens frequently withdraw from family members, and all the uncertainties and changes happening around them may deepen that isolation. Because teens are pulling away, Lopez emphasizes the importance of maintaining ongoing conversations between parents and kids.

Make time for them when they come to you, and when they talk, listen carefully—don’t brush off their concerns.

“Sometimes they just stay in their rooms, but you have to make yourself available for those conversations,” Lopez said. “Repeatedly check in, continue having family chats, and be really open. Answer all their questions, and also ask them questions.”

One of your kid’s biggest concerns may be about the uncertainty of what school will look like in the fall. Some families may opt for virtual programs or homeschooling, while others are planning to send students back to brick-and-mortar schools. But without knowing for sure what’s in store for the upcoming academic year, teens may experience a lot of anxiety. Make sure to talk to your kids about how they feel about those uncertainties.

Compromise, while keeping teens safe

Every person reacts differently to stressful situations, a fact no less true for kids. Obedient teens may begin acting out, being disrespectful and defying social isolation orders. But loneliness can be detrimental to anyone’s mental health, so you may need to compromise with your teenager to give them some independence while also ensuring they’re staying safe. Consider allowing your teen to pick up lunch to eat with a friend, but remind them to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer frequently.

“Text them and ask them; don’t assume they’re being safe,” Lopez said. “Work with them to come up with a safety bubble to live in with their very close friends.”

Limiting physical social contact to just a few close friends helps reduce the risk of infection while also maintaining vital friendships—and good mental health. Also, encourage your kids to use online platforms for video chats with friends, which can provide social connection.

Watch for red flags

It’s important to stay in tune with your kid—don’t become so stressed yourself that you miss warning signs of depression in your child. Knowing your teen’s individual personality and needs will help you notice if something isn’t right. Questions to consider include:

  • Has something changed in my teen’s behavior?
  • Are they more isolated than usual?
  • Are they acting more defiant, aggressive or irritable?
  • Are they leaving the house more often?
  • Are they worrying more than usual?
  • Are they complaining of unexplained physical pain, like stomach aches?
  • Are there any changes in their sleep, appetite, energy or interest levels?

“Don’t be afraid to ask your child questions like ‘Do you feel depressed?’ or ‘Have you thought about suicide?’” Lopez said. “Some parents hesitate to ask those questions, but if it crosses your mind for some reason, you should talk to your child about it.”

Lopez urges parents not to delay counseling if they believe their teen needs professional help dealing with their emotions and fears. Many therapists are available for appointments by phone or video call to care for kids’ mental health. Though it may not be ideal, it’s better to seek help virtually than allow mental health problems to escalate. If your child is depressed or having some type of mental health emergency, especially if they’ve said anything about self-harm, call 911 immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Put things in perspective

Though teens may feel like their life is uniquely unfair right now, Lopez suggests helping them realize that past generations have also dealt with unprecedented crises—like the Great Depression, two world wars, the Vietnam war, even the Sept. 11 attacks. Remind kids that those generations persevered and the current battle with the coronavirus will also pass.

Too much social media and news consumption can compound anxieties, and it’s a good idea to set limits on both. This is a time when families can get creative with activities like watching old family movies or talking about ideal future vacations.

Maintain physical health to protect mental health

Many teens who were physically active before the pandemic have turned to electronics to pass the time while stuck at home. However, staying active can boost everyone’s mood, so help your kids find ways to get moving, ideally for 60 minutes or more a day. These ideas might work for your family:

  • Some exercise studios offer virtual classes you can join from home, which can be a good substitute for in-person programs.
  • Walks and bike rides can help bring families together.
  • Some neighborhood pools have reopened, which can offer an exercise option as long as ample physical distancing is possible.

“Our kids are watching us, so we need to stay healthy and balanced,” Lopez said. “We might go in our rooms and cry later, but that’s the part they don’t have to see. For their sake, we need to stay consistent and supportive.”

University Health System’s Teen Health Clinic provides education and medical services in a safe and supportive environment with staff specially trained to help kids and young adults ages 10­–24. For more information, call 210-358-TALK (8255).