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May 29, 2020

The teens of movies and memes are depicted as moody, brooding, door-slamming aliens that take over our sweet children until they decide to return to their home planet and give us our kids back. All kidding aside, the teenage years are hard for kids and parents. Teens are trying to figure out who they are, find friends, and gain independence. Parents are trying to protect their children while also trying to figure out how to let them grow. Now, living through a pandemic is heightening the already increased potential for friction endemic to the teen years.

Kristie Kuhl and I, both mothers of teens, spoke with John MacPhee, executive director and CEO of The Jed Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing suicide for those transitioning into adulthood. In our discussion with John, we were able to get answers to some questions about teens and mental health in the time of COVID-19.

What is “normal teen behavior” in this new pandemic world?

“Normal” is a spectrum and depends on the individual teen’s typical demeanor, where the teen is in the academic grade spectrum, and a host of other factors. In the current environment, the following understandable reactions to the COVID pandemic should be considered “normal human responses:”

  • Anxiety
  • Nervousness
  • Numbness
  • Grief
  • Guilt

Teens have been sent home from school, physically separated from friends and romantic partners. Major life milestones have been taken away, like graduations and proms, and the grief they are feeling for these losses is profound and real. Some teens are suffering the loss of friends or family to the virus and they cannot properly grieve because of lockdown rules. Still others feel guilty because they know they have a better situation than many.

These feelings are all normal and teens should not feel bad for having them. Parents can help by engaging with their teens, helping them interpret what they are feeling and by modeling good coping behaviors.

So, what are good COVID-19 quarantine coping behaviors?

There are two categories of behaviors we can foster to help address the mental health of teens and, quite frankly, all of us. These are self-care and protective behaviors.

Self-care behaviors:

  • Having a routine, including regular sleep
  • Getting exercise
  • Stepping out into the sunshine
  • Practicing mindfulness

Protective behaviors:

  • Fostering connectedness with family and friends, even while we are physically distancing
  • Finding ways to celebrate life’s milestones and have fun and joy in other ways

Setting a routine that includes stepping away from the news and finding time to be silly is a healthy way for teens and whole families to reduce the stress of the crisis. Getting outside for a walk together could mean that you're turning to exercise and sunshine instead of alcohol as a way to cope.

Setting up a call or a drive-by visit with grandparents could lessen the feelings of isolation and foster connectiveness for everyone involved. Holding family dinners are a good time to talk about the day and to plan ways to celebrate life’s moments like birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries.

What signals should parents be looking for in their teens that need to be addressed?

While changes in behavior are expected, more significant shifts in the following could signal the need for a discussion or intervention:

  • Sleep patterns
  • Appearance and selfcare
  • Eating habits
  • Not engaging in activities in which they used to take part

Parents should not underestimate their gut feeling that something is wrong. If something feels off, then engage and ask, “Are you ok? I noticed you seem down.”

What resources are available for teens?

Good resources for teens in crisis or in need of support include:

  • Crisis Text Line – Access to a trained counselor 24/7, text HOME to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • JEDs Love is Louder Action Center – Tips, tools, and resources for taking care of physical and mental health, and supporting each other during this time of uncertainty

In this time of COVID-19, day-to-day life is stretching our mental and emotional health to its very limits. As parents we need to remember our children and teens do not yet have the life experience to draw on to work through this crazy world – we have to walk them through this. There is no instruction manual; we are all making this up as we go along, and we truly have our hearts in the right place. With this in mind, be kind to yourself.

 

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