Now more than ever, it's critical for parents to check in with their teens on a regular basis. Encourage parents to ask their children directly how they’re doing and to validate that these are hard times.
Though the pandemic has been difficult for everyone, teens have been hit especially hard. School is their primary responsibility and it’s been exceedingly challenging. Some schools are now offering all in-person classes, while others have at least some online schooling. Virtual schooling brings its own set of challenges, both from a learning perspective and social one.
Many students have expressed they feel no separation between home and school, that it all blurs together. Previously motivated adolescents are struggling with completing work on time or even caring about completing work. I’ve seen an increase in apathy and decrease in motivation in some teens, making it harder to complete school work. I spend time validating that school is more challenging for many students. I let my young patients know they’re not alone in their struggles. Formerly high-achieving “A” students are faced with their first Bs, Cs, and Ds. Those with attention issues are finding it hard to find a quiet place without any distractions to sit during their virtual classes. Individuals with social anxiety are temporarily enjoying the decrease in social demands but having a hard time being around other people when they leave their house. Some are having panic attacks in grocery stores, something they haven’t had to previously deal with.
While I wouldn’t say there is anything “normal” about pandemic life, I do try to normalize the experiences of my patients. I reinforce “You’re not alone. Everyone is struggling with something similar to what you’re experiencing. This is tough for everyone.”
In sessions I often find myself sussing out worsening depression from ongoing pandemic fatigue. Is the ennui and low motivation a sign of recurrence of depression or burnout from the pandemic? To tease this out I ask about what the teen has recently enjoyed—even during the pandemic we can still find things to enjoy—the warming weather has been a popular response, or fire pits with friends, playing with the dog, eating a favorite food, talking with friends. If they can’t identify anything enjoyable then I’m concerned about worsening depression. I also always ask about recent social interactions—who are they texting, FaceTiming, or meeting up with while maintaining physical distance. Social isolation worsens one’s mood and connecting with others improves mood. I keep track of the names of my patient’s friends and how often they’re connecting so I can be aware of any changes in their interactions—did they have a falling out with a friend and if so, will this impact their mood, have they increased their close contacts, are they texting weekly or daily?
Now more than ever it’s critical for parents to be checking in with their teens. I discuss with parents how important it is for their children to be connected to friends. I encourage parents to support their children in reaching out to friends. We problem solve around safe ways for their children to socialize with their friends. Some parents have even gently prodded their teens to meet up with friends for physically-distant walks. As we all know, it’s important to put your oxygen mask on before your kids. Therefore, modelling wellness—going for walks, exercising, getting together with friends while maintaining physical distance, unplugging from the phone—are important for adults, as well as children. Also, encouraging practicing self-compassion toward oneself is an important reminder that everyone is struggling in some way.
Most importantly, if parents are concerned, or notice any changes in their child’s behaviors, attitude, or interactions with family and friends—ask teens directly how they are feeling. Give them space to express how they’re doing. Parents may want to jump in and solve their child’s problems, but teens often want to vent—they want someone to listen and empathize. Validate these are tough times. Ask if there’s anything they can do to help support their teen. If parents are worried after checking in with their teen, they should reach out to their pediatrician for support and/or seek mental health services.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.