The effects of coronavirus have hit families hard, but one population that’s not so easy to assess when it comes to the stresses of COVID-19 are teenagers. By nature, teens are less likely to express their anxieties and worries, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going through a rollercoaster of emotions as they try to make sense of, and cope through this unusual time.
Christopher Lynch, PhD, is the program coordinator for the Pediatric Behavioral Medicine department of Goryeb Children’s Hospital and Atlantic Health System-Children’s Health and specializes in helping young people deal with anxiety issues. He’s even written two books on the subject: “Totally Chill: My Complete Guide to Staying Cool” and “Anxiety Management for Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Your Guide to Preventing Meltdowns and Unlocking Potential.”
Dr. Lynch says the first step toward helping teens deal with everything that’s going on is to model the behaviors we want to see in them.
“If we are constantly on social media, email, watching TV and news all the time, our kids are going to pick up those cues,” he says. “That makes it more difficult for us to have legitimacy when we say, ‘Go outside and play.’ You have to be a good role model.”
COVID in the Digital World
Turning to electronics is natural for teens, even when there isn’t a pandemic going on. So how else can we make sure our kids aren’t sinking into an internet rabbit hole as a way to escape? Dr. Lynch says the key is to ask teens how they feel when they are engaged with anything electronic.
“Check in on how they’re feeling,” he suggests. “Chances are, they feel good initially, it’s novel, there’s some excitement in being online. But then they don’t feel so good. What resonates with teenagers is learning how social media companies and video game designers build in strategies to keep you online, even when its not good for physical or mental health.” Dr. Lynch says that when teens understand that, they’ll be better equipped to recognize when it’s time to take a pause from electronics and go do something that’s good for their health – what he calls “head clearing activities” such as sports or gardening.
Teens and Socializing
Even if parents come up with rules for staying safe while socializing it’s difficult to always be sure that teens are following them. Dr. Lynch says that what helps is getting teens to understand the risks.
“We want them to know that when it comes to socializing there’s a level of risk involved,” says Dr. Lynch. “We can help them to understand that certain types of situations are riskier than others.” For example, if your teen wants to hang out with their friends and they want to do it indoors, but you don’t feel comfortable, find a solution such as them getting together outside.
Staying Connected to Family
Quarantine has been a challenge for everyone, with our physical and mental space being infringed on with so much togetherness. But we don’t want teens to totally withdraw from their families.
“Teens are already sensitive about people infringing on their space,” says Dr. Lynch. “They want to withdraw but we need to set some parameters.”
Dr. Lynch says that letting them have some input can help.
“If it’s family movie night, have your teen decide what you’ll watch. If you’re going on a family hike, let them pick the trail.” Giving them some decision-making power lets your teen feel that sense of independence that he or she needs.
Dealing with Risky Behaviors
It’s natural for teens to be curious regarding riskier behaviors such as experimenting with tobacco, alcohol, drugs and sex. Dr. Lynch says that teens may look to these behaviors now as a way to cope with stress.
“We need to be aware of what teens are doing but not be intrusive,” he says. One strategy is to make sure you stay connected with your teen and their community, even during COVID.
“Have a sense of who their friends are and get to know who your teen’s friends’ parents are,” he suggests. “Many parents have the same concerns and will be relieved if you reach out to them.”
Sorting Out the News
Dr. Lynch says that it’s useful and necessary to have conversations about what’s going in the news with your teen. “There’s a lot of information out there and a lot of disinformation,” he says.
“A lot of teens get news from social media. Parents should make sure the info they’re getting is useful and actionable. We need to show our teens how we manage the use of media.”
Dr. Lynch says one of the teens he works with said that he watches “enough of the news so I keep informed but not so much that I panic.”
That’s a lesson that makes sense for all of us!
Recognizing Depression and Anxiety
“If a teen has an underlying condition and is already prone to depression, the pandemic can worsen those conditions,” says Dr. Lynch.
Lynch says that sometimes when it comes to stress, we may not see impact until weeks or even months after a situation as it takes time for the mind to process what has occurred.
For teens that struggle socially, adjusting to the “new normal” can be very tricky, since they were not encouraged to interact during COVID.
“Avoidance can ramp up social anxiety,” he says.
Dr. Lynch says parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression, which in teens can include decreased energy level, loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite and self-deprecating statements.
“Those are real red flags,” says Dr. Lynch. “With teens very often, they may not communicate verbally but you may detect depression through behavior and demeanor, which may present as irritability,” he says.
“If you think your teen has anxiety or depressive disorder you can start with a pediatrician,” he says. “You can get an evaluation and they can be a great source of referrals. Behavioral health professionals have adapted to telehealth very easily. If your teen felt a good connection to provider, see if you can check in with them.”