Developmentally speaking, the high school years represent a time of major psychological growth—which can lead to family tension as teens yearning for more independence chafe under their parents’ restrictions. When we’re not in a pandemic, it’s common for teens to spend less time at home and more time with friends. However, during this pandemic, many teens feel trapped at home, which is leading to some unhealthy coping mechanisms.
If you see significant changes in your teenager’s behavior or body, consider making an appointment with their medical provider. These changes may include major shifts in appetite, body weight, sleeping patterns, mood, or behaviors. Sometimes, it can be hard to determine whether changes are significant, but trust your instincts if things seem unhealthy to you.
Right now, teens are spending most of their day staring at a screen, whether it’s for school, entertainment, or to connect with friends. The reduced in-person interactions combined with more time spent on social media is impacting teens’ ability to develop healthy relationships. Many are turning inward, not sharing their feelings of isolation and self-doubt with anyone. Two of the most common mental health conditions are anxiety and depression, and they are on the rise.
Anxiety can be described as the inability to be present in the moment because teens are preoccupied with something that happened in the past or may happen in the future. Other symptoms may include irritability, trouble concentrating, physical agitation, headaches, trouble sleeping, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems, among others.
Many elements of the pandemic have caused teens to feel anxious or upset. For example, when their relationships with peers are interrupted, especially when they see other peers interacting, they feel left out and left behind. Many college-bound teens are concerned about their ability to excel on college entrance exams after a year of online learning, and student athletes are concerned they are falling behind competitors who have been allowed to train and compete throughout the pandemic. Finally, many teens have had to take on additional responsibilities at home, such as caring for younger siblings or mediating family disputes. All of these can increase anxiety and stress.
Another common diagnosis among teens right now is depression. Depression is often characterized by apathy, a general lack of motivation, and disengagement with the relationships and activities teens previously valued. This is a matter of degree, as some of these emotional changes may be normal during the teenage years. The question is: Are these traits new and how long are they lasting?
Teens are more likely to disengage when they feel they lack any voice, choice, or agency and consequently, have no ability to influence what happens to them. If they can’t find a quiet space to do schoolwork or if they don’t have a stable internet connection, they may stop trying to work through challenging academic problems because they think it’s a waste of effort. If teens are not allowed to leave the house, but instead are required to care for younger siblings much of the time, they may stop trying to cultivate friendships of their own. Over time, these types of situations can lead to feelings of frustration or even despair.
What to Do
One of the most important things parents can do for their teen’s mental health is to ensure their teens get enough sleep. My colleague, Dr. Casey Johnston, just wrote an excellent article on the importance of sleep, available at www.mchcinc.org. Other important factors include healthy diets and enough physical activity.
As unsettling as it may be for parents, it really is important for teens to spend some time with peers and to have some privacy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that outdoor meetings with others who are masked and at least six feet apart are quite safe. Parents may not feel that they can trust their teens to maintain these precautions, but showing your teen you trust them can help to build a stronger bond between the two of you, as well as building a sense of responsibility in your teen. Many families may decide this is a risk they are willing to take if their child’s mental health is suffering.
During a pandemic, some added stress is unavoidable, but it is time to take action if your teen seems deeply unhappy, withdrawn, agitated, irritable, unmotivated, and/or displays unusually low energy. In addition to your primary care provider, you can also connect with local resources such as Tapestry Youth Services, Mendocino County Youth Project, and Redwood Community Services.
Grace Ivey is a primary care counselor at MCHC Health Centers—a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. All MCHC health centers accept Medi-Cal/Partnership HealthPlan of California, Medicare, Covered California, and other insurance. Learn more at mchcinc.org.