It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected peoples’ mental health. A CDC survey from August 2020 found that 41 percent of respondents are struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic—and kids are no exception.
Many teens have found themselves learning from home with schools closing due to the pandemic. And as a result, their social, emotional and mental wellbeing have suffered. Dr. Roseann Getchell, PsyD, sat down with Dr. Tyson Payne, PsyD, to talk about teen behavioral health and the impact of homeschooling due to COVID. You can view the full live event here or read highlights from the discussion below.
Have you noticed a change in the teens you’ve been seeing since the onset of COVID?
Yes. I have seen a higher rate of anxiety than ever before, as well as different types of anxieties. Interestingly, there was some relief for those kids who had been diagnosed with social anxiety prior to COVID, as it was easier for them to learn at home. However, as the months went by, that sense of relief went away (even for them) and has been replaced by general anxiety.
Also, all kids are expressing more fear. For example, the fear of getting COVID themselves or of others getting it and fear of what the future holds. The fear and anxiety are made worse by the lack of social interaction with their peers. Teens especially rely on their peers to get a sense of “what’s OK” or “normal.” With that interaction gone, they are losing their point of reference. Teens also rely on peers to help them develop their own sense of identity. So, some are feeling a loss of who they are or where they are headed next, which tends to bring about anxiety.
While social media can be harmful in its distortion of truth and reality, at this time, it can help teens retain some sense of peer connection.
What are some of the concerns that parents have?
Some of the most common questions I've been hearing are:
- How can I motivate my child to do their schoolwork?
- How can I help my child push through zoom fatigue and keep learning?
- How can I motivate my teen for anything at all when they seem so depressed?
Unfortunately, these are all hard questions that many parents are asking around the nation. While each child and teen are different, there are a few things to try. First, be sure to establish a regular routine for your kids and your family. This will help to keep them anchored and give them a sense of control and knowing what to expect. Also, do your best to incorporate social interactions into your teen’s schedule, whether it’s via Zoom, physically distanced get-togethers or even phone calls. Keep kids talking to their peers. Finally, require kids to get out and exercise. Especially during the colder months, it can be challenging to get out and move, but it truly makes a difference. Model that behavior by getting out with them, or by going and doing something physical yourself while they go on their own.
What types of behavior are a cause for concern?
You want to keep an eye out for kids and teens who seem to be losing interest in things that used to bring them joy—video games are a big one. Also, chronic fatigue is a red flag. Declining social invitations and opportunities is another cause for concern. If your child never has the energy to do anything, it could signal the onset of depression and you may want to seek out professional help for that.
How do you talk to a teen who isn’t talking?
Most parents of teens have encountered this situation. I tell parents that they may have to do a little guesswork with them to find out what is going on, and then encourage conversation. Try “appropriate sharing” to model the words and scenarios that might lead to a bad mood such as, “I had such a frustrating day with my boss/clients/projects at work. It makes me feel like hiding under my covers for the rest of the day, but that’s not healthy.” Sometimes kids and teens are simply not sure of what their mood even is, or the right words to express it. Also, do fun things together that don’t require talking about feelings. Be active with them to get them up and moving, and to create an opportunity to spur conversation.
How can parents help?
To start with, parents need to be direct with their kids and teens and ask them how they’re feeling. Model the words if needed and offer some of your own words for certain moods. Allow your child to express their bad mood or talk about having an awful day. Encourage the conversation. If these feelings and moods are persistent, suggest talking to a local counselor—maybe someone at school—or having an online counseling session. Teens seem to be more open to therapy than they have been in the past simply because there is no big-time conflict; they aren’t missing out on anything, so why not talk to a counselor? Also, the fear of in-person meetings is lessened with online conversations.
Is there anything that parents should avoid doing?
Here is one that is contrary to what parents may have done in pre-COVID times: try to not limit their phone time, even as punishment. It is the only social outlet they have, and they desperately need it right now. I tell them, half-jokingly, that it would be equivalent to putting someone in solitary confinement. In “normal times” even if a kid loses phone privileges, they get to see and interact with peers at school for that natural classroom and hallway socializing. But now there is no real social time. Zoom classes lack the spontaneous conversations that we’re used to having and there isn’t any non-structured peer time. Spontaneous, non-structured time with peers is vital to mental health for kids and adults. Also, don’t be so hard on yourself. We are only human and we’re all doing our best. Put that into practice for both you and your kids.
What are some ways whole families can work together to get through this time?
Our family is big on game nights! That can mean board games, card games, video games; even apps that are games can be interactive. Try anything that encourages conversation, relationship interaction or that requires families to talk and problem-solve. While it is important to pay attention to signs that things are wrong, it is equally important to make sure that your family is taking time for fun.
What are some ways you’ve helped your kids deal with the effects of homeschooling? Share your tips with readers @providence on Twitter.
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If you’re looking for ways to help your teen improve their mental health, talk to your primary care provider. They can help your teen develop a plan that works for them. Use our provider directory or search for one in your area.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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