Even in normal times, being a teenager is fraught.
Add in a pandemic, and it’s uniquely isolating. Teenagers are old enough to read and understand the fear within COVID-19 headlines, but young enough to not be fully equipped with the emotional maturity that can help adults.
Plus, missing prom and sports seasons and learning online instead of with your friends? It’s a lot.
“Teenagers are uniquely negatively impacted by this for sure,” said Advocate pediatric psychologist Gabrielle Roberts.
Parents can help in many ways, from not judging their teen’s anxiety to working as a partner to help navigate a return to the world of school and group activities.
For some teens, COVID-19 curtailed their independence just as they began gaining freedoms such as a driver’s license, said Dr. Parker Huston, a licensed clinical psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
“Now all of a sudden those things are being cut short or removed,” he said.
Meanwhile, teenagers are still at risk of becoming sick should they contract the virus, yet often without the same access to vaccines as the adults in their lives.
And while isolation begins to ebb for others, ”Nothing much is really changing for them,” Roberts said. “Their lives are very much on hold.”
Recently, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said youth sports and extracurricular activities are related to outbreaks of COVID-19 in young people. She suggested they be limited.
Even as some teens return to school and sports or other activities, those situations can create stress. Like many in Illinois, teens may experience FOGO — fear of going out.
A new survey out of Lurie Children’s Hospital showed that the emotional health of Chicago children has been affected by the pandemic; of 1,500 parents surveyed, nearly half had mentioned mental or behavioral health concerns to their children’s doctors within the last six to 12 months.
Meanwhile, parents of children receiving virtual or hybrid schooling more frequently reported their child’s mental or emotional health worsened during the pandemic, according to the CDC.
Huston, clinical director of On Our Sleeves at Nationwide, which provides mental health resources for children, said they have been seeing an increase in crisis response for children across the country.
Roberts said of the Illinois teens she talks to, many tend to live in the present, which can be wonderful, but during a pandemic, that can also lead to rabbit holes of dread and unhappiness over the idea of missing something like prom.
“These are milestones that they’re looking at and they’re thinking, I won’t get these back,” she said.
And even for those who have been able to return to school, it’s not the same.
“I have teenagers tell me all the time, even those who have been able to resume a little bit of school, school’s not the same,” she said of hybrid learning. “It’s still not what they want. So yes, two days back is better than no days back, but this isn’t what (they) want.”
Roberts added, “That’s stressful. It’s like returning to work and having everything turned upside down.”
Parents can help in a few ways. First, understand what is being asked of teens. Many are still in a disruptive mix of virtual and in-person learning after experiencing a constant routine — going to school in the same way their entire life. This can take a toll on grades, mood or attitude.
Parents should withhold any judgment about anxiety teens feel. Some might happily return to prepandemic activities. Others might feel hesitant.
“We need to understand, we’ve spent the last year scaring them into submission,” Roberts said. “And now we’re trying to encourage them to go back.”
For teens worried about attending school or group activities, parents can consider a joint problem-solving approach.
“Treat your teenagers and adolescents as a partner in decision-making,” Huston said, suggesting that parents consider starting the conversation with, “Tell me what you’re thinking,” or, “Have you been reading anything about this subject lately? What have you heard from your friends?”
Seek solutions together. If your teen is reading misinformation, you can say something like, “That’s interesting, because I read something that said kind of the opposite. Could you show me where you read about that, and maybe I can show you where I’m getting my information from?”
Come up with a plan. Talk about how an activity will be safe, for example noting that it will be outside and the teen can use hand sanitizer and a mask. Focus on ways to maintain safety and discuss how the family has remained safe at past outings, instead of what the dangers are, Roberts said.
“Look at past experience,” she added.
Finally, don’t assume you know what the difficulty is — ask how teens are doing. It’s easy for a parent to assume what might be hard for a teen, when reality is they might miss their part-time job and having their own income more than they miss team activities.
Parents can’t fix everything, but consider small changes that can be made, such as having a teen connect with a friend at school to walk in together, restoring a tiny piece of normalcy. Or work together to create an event to replace, for example, a cancelled prom — maybe with an outdoor gathering or virtual get together.
Finally, just know that as Roberts said, “To some extent, we have to just ride this out.”
“We can’t always solve the problem that we’d like to solve, but we can still look for opportunities to bolster happiness and enjoyment in life,” she said.
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