CHARLOTTE – By all accounts, parents of teens during the COVID-19 pandemic can feel equal parts concerned and annoyed.
Annoyed, well, because they’re teens – they fight to go to bed so they’re bears in the morning, they only want to eat junk food and they won’t focus on their schoolwork.
And concerned for all the same reasons. The pandemic has put the mental health of many teens in a precarious position. A new national poll shows that 46 percent of parents have seen a new or worsening mental health condition in their teens since March 2020, when the pandemic started in the U.S. Girls, they say, are experiencing more symptoms of anxiety and depression than are boys.
Novant Health Psychiatric Associates therapist Jaren Doby at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates – Randolph and Huntersville said he’s seeing more teens struggling with a lack of concentration and the related academic issues, plus lower moods brought on from missing their friends.
Just when these adults-in-progress are supposed to be exercising their independence, they’re stuck at home with their parents and starving for time with peers.
“We’ve been seeing an increase in teens seeking treatment out, just as a result of virtual learning and everybody dealing with the pandemic and all of the life changes that kind of come with that,” Doby said.
Support starts with parents building a rapport with their teens, he said. It’s not always easy and it takes some time, but it’s worth it.
Ask, don’t tell
- Teens who feel comfortable talking with their parents about their feelings can be few and far between. So start by asking if they’re even interested in talking about certain subjects, whether it be emotions, school, friends or the pandemic in general.
- Big tip: Avoid starting your conversations with “I know …” Your goal is to find out what your teen needs. You don’t know what they need until they tell you. “A lot of kids within those teenage years very much desire, like a lot of adults, just to be asked what their needs are,” Doby explained.
Give it time, then circle back
- Once you invite your teen to talk, don’t add pressure by looking for a response right away. Let them know they can take time to communicate in any way they want, through writing, drawing, poetry, sharing music.
- If you don’t hear back from them in a couple of days, circle around and ask, “Hey, you know, just wondering if you came up with anything?” If they still seem to be struggling, ask if they’d like to talk to someone else – a teacher, an aunt or uncle, or a behavioral health specialist.
How to read the signs
- Looking for warning signs for mental health issues in teens is a tricky proposition during remote learning and social distancing. Is your son’s lack of concentration a sign of Zoom fatigue, depression or both? Is your daughter doing some extra running because she can’t hang out with friends or because she’s trying to control anxiety? And can she be running too much?
- Doby said it might be more effective to watch for changes in routines. If your daughter went for a run three times a week, and now it’s three times a day or not at all, she’s telling you something. Mention to her – without making her feel guilty or pressured – that you’ve noticed the change and wanted to make sure everything was OK.
Good news: mental health stigma is fading
- And, by all means, ask about Zoom fatigue, Doby said. We’re all feeling it, and this might be a good connection point between you and your teen.
- When it all seems to overwhelm you, then it’s probably burdening your teen, too. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist, Doby said. At the very least, you can introduce your teen to therapy as a helpful, non-threatening option for solving emotional problems anytime in his or her life.
Doby said one of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it has normalized the discussion of mental health issues among teens. He said they’re talking about anxiety, stress and depression with friends on social media.
Parents just need to start that rapport at home so they can talk about it with their teens, too.
“I can’t say it enough, that we’re actually all in this together,” Doby said. “Parents and teens can take the opportunity to have these increased conversations, to kind of bounce ideas off each other. … It really is something that we are in this together.”
Let them know you’re listening
Consider one of the situations parents and teens have been struggling with all year: Mom and dad think their teen will benefit from in-person classes. But their kid wants to stay with remote learning. Doby suggests the conversation goes something like this: Parent and teen lay out their thoughts and concerns. You acknowledge your teen’s viewpoint and recommend they try going back – but set a date to revisit the decision. You’re inviting your teen to the table and making sure you hear them.
“Ultimately, it is not relinquishing your power to be able to have a conversation with your teen, and you’re encouraging or strengthening future communication by being able to be open like this,” Doby said. “Because, at the end of the day, they are people too. When we say, ‘What I say goes,’ we can be damaging our relationships with our teens instead of modeling how to solve problems.”
North Carolina residents who are in emotional distress — or would like guidance on helping someone they know who is struggling with depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug use — can call a free 24-hour helpline at (800) 718-3550 to speak with a counselor. The service, provided by Novant Health, connects callers with a master’s level therapist who can offer immediate guidance and help determine possible next steps, which could include a further assessment or connection to community resources for those in need.