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Teen Mental Health and COVID: A Letter for Parents

To say these are trying times for most is an understatement. Things are unpredictable, big key events are occurring and we are just expected to deal with them ourselves, and assist our children and family with dealing with them. The closing of schools last year around spring break was not what teens expected. Not returning to school and moving to remote learning this year was also not expected. If you live in the Houston area, you just got the scare of a large hurricane coming to the area as well. This has been so stressful for adults, and although the younger generation may not express it as much, the stress and anxiety is present among teens. National 4-H Council issued a survey recently with The Harris Poll to explore teen’s perceptions and experiences around mental health, with shocking results. While there was a lot of relevant information in the full report, here are some of the key findings:

  • 81% of teens say mental health is a significant issue for young people in the U.S., and 64% of teens believe that the experience of COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on their generation’s mental health.

  • In this stressful climate, 7 in 10 teens have experienced struggles with mental health.

  • 55% of teens say they’ve experienced anxiety, 45% excessive stress, and 43% depression.

  • 61% of teens said that COVID-19 pandemic has increased their feeling of loneliness.

  • Teens today report spending 75% of their waking hours on screens during COVID-19.

  • 82% of teens calling on America to talk more openly and honestly about mental health issues in this country.

  • 79% of teens surveyed wish there was an inclusive environment or safe space for people in school to talk about mental health.

COVID is definitely impacting our teens. When teens become overloaded with stress it can lead to problems such as anxiety, aggression, isolation, depression, physical illness, and poor coping skills, such as alcohol or drug use. It is important to remember that teens are taking cues from adults in their life as we cope through these stressful times. Often times, our younger generations mimic how others around them respond. If we are having a difficult time managing our stress, our teens likely will as well.   Letting our youth know that it is okay to struggle creates space needed for them to talk about what they are struggling with. When we experience situations that are difficult or painful, there are changes that occur in the mind and body to prepare us to respond, oftentimes referred to as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. The same mechanism that turns on our stress response can also turn it off. Changes occur again that show we are no longer in a stressful or dangerous situation. This is called the “relaxation response.” Teens that can develop a “relaxation response” and other stress management skills will respond more positively when faced with hard situations. You can help your teen in the following ways:

  • Monitor their stress levels by noticing if there are changes in their health, behavior, thoughts or feelings.

  • Listen to them carefully and watch for them becoming overloaded.

  • Be aware of your stress and how you are managing and expressing it. Are you engaging with your teens daily?

  • Talk openly with them about how they are feeling.

  • Encourage them to stay involved with others; whether it’s a weekly zoom call with outside family members, or allowing them to FaceTime with their friends

  • Encourage your teens to exercise and eat regularly.

  • Develop a routine

  • Set reasonable expectations for screen time. Allow them to express their frustration on this in a calm, healthy way. They will likely share that others do not have limits, but stand firm.

  • Help them understand current situations and engage with them in a solution that works for the whole family.

There are several resources that have been developed to help parents and caregivers navigate this new environment. The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine provides resources for parents and teens regarding COVID-19 and mental health coping. Unicef provides 5 recommendations on how teenagers can protect their mental health during COVID-19. They are:

  1. Recognize that your anxiety is completely normal

  2. Create distractions

  3. Find new ways to connect with your friends

  4. Focus on you

  5. Feel your feelings

Unicef provides further details on what teens can do to practice self-care and look out for their mental health. If you feel your teen’s mental health needs to be addressed further, it is recommended you reach out to your primary care provider. They can appropriately assess and refer out to a therapist or psychiatrist if needed.

Written by: Meaghan LIghtbody-Warner, LCSW


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