A year is a long time in the life of a teenager, and each year of high school is filled with long-anticipated moments — making a varsity sports team, prom, the first day of senior year, college acceptance celebrations, the excitement of the very last day of high school and graduation. Since COVID-19 has altered or eliminated so many rituals, both young people and their parents are feeling legitimate loss and grief over missing these long-awaited events.
It is easy for the distress young people feel over these losses to go unnoticed. Adults in their lives are experiencing their own stressors with worries about juggling the demands of jobs, home schooling and looking out for aging parents. With no in-person school, teens are less likely to have direct contact with teachers and others who might spot and address escalating mental health issues. And the pandemic has left families afraid to go to non-urgent medical appointments, eliminating another set of professionals who might otherwise identify mental health issues.
Validate your teen’s feelings
I urge parents to take care of themselves while also checking in with their teens about how they are coping. When teens feel connected, they are more likely to open up. Validate their feelings by saying things like, “This doesn’t make it any less miserable now, but we will get through this.” Remind them about times when they have overcome other difficulties, and let them know they are resilient and can deploy those techniques again.
Encourage creative alternatives
Find new ways to mark occasions. Engage your teen in planning celebrations that they will find special — such as virtual recreations of events, outdoor activities, or “drive-by” parties — while acknowledging it is not the same as the ceremonies they expected. If teens are missing sports, help them find ways to stay fit and active, while honing skills that will make them better at activities they love.
Recognize that returning to ‘normal’ is stressful, too
For teens prone to anxiety, social distancing has provided a haven from daily stresses of school and outside activities. The idea of jumping back into social situations may produce anxiety. Even those who were not susceptible to anxiety before are likely to have grown accustomed to isolation, and returning to school and other once normal activities may cause stress. Spending so much time avoiding exposure to the coronavirus may have created fears about large gatherings. It is important to talk with teens and to monitor your own reaction to these changes. Ask them how they are feeling while also giving them space to process their feelings in their own time.
Watch for warning signals
Anxiety, depression and signs of mental illness are often written off as normal adolescent changes, especially as teens retreat to social media and gaming. Warning signs that may indicate a need for outside help include declining grades with worrisome changes around thinking and organizational ability; destructive behavior; extreme mood swings; changes in sleeping and eating patterns; an excessive need to escape through drug or alcohol abuse; self-harm such as skin cutting; excessive exercise; harmful oppositional behaviors; or problems with peers due to anger, threats, or sexually acting out.
If in doubt, don’t go it alone. If your teen’s behavior or talk make you think they are struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental illness, reach out to a therapist or your pediatrician for support and a referral.
Lucy Bramwell, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is the clinical director at Paradigm Treatment, a Joint Commission-accredited mental health treatment facility in Malibu and San Rafael that serves adolescents and young adults between the ages of 12-26 who are experiencing moderate to severe mental health issues.