The pandemic has totally upended what daily life is like for all of us — but especially teenagers. Instead of days filled with in-person classes, after-school hangouts, sports, and more, many adolescents are attending school virtually and missing all those IRL interactions with their peers.
Dr. Lauren Strelitz, a pediatrician at Bayside Medical Group with Stanford Children's Health, said she's concerned about the effect of the pandemic on her teenage patients. "While this is a challenging time for everybody, it is particularly difficult for adolescents," she explained. "This is a time when they're developmentally supposed to be gaining independence." And it's certainly hard to feel independent when you're stuck at home all day.
Dr. Strelitz is already seeing this manifest in increased levels of sadness, stress, and frustration in her teenage patients. "Anxiety and depression in teenagers has been a huge problem, even prior to the pandemic, and is getting worse," she said. Read on to find out three of the biggest concerns Dr. Strelitz has about teenagers' mental health right now, as well as what parents can do to help.
First and foremost, Dr. Strelitz said she's concerned about the social isolation teenagers are experiencing. A normal school day for teens includes seeing friends in the hallways, attending classes together, and maybe also hanging out after school during extracurricular activities — all of which have gone virtual for many teens. "There's a way to do distance education where people still get high-quality education, but the piece that is a challenge for teenagers is being away from their friends," she said.
Friendships are a crucial part of teenagers' development, Dr. Strelitz said, so "finding creative ways to help your teenager spend time with their friends is really important." She suggested that parents encourage teens to make time to hang out with friends, whether that means playing video games together online or setting up group video chats. Parents might also want to consider allowing their teens to meet one or two friends in person for outdoor activities like hikes or bike rides, as long as they stay socially distant and wear masks. Of course, every family should have a conversation about the level of risk they are willing to take. For example, if one of the family members is at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, they may not be willing to socialize in person with anyone outside of their household. Other families might not be comfortable with their teens seeing friends who have traveled by plane recently, for example.
Dr. Strelitz noted that parents might also want to be cognizant of how they regulate screen time and phone time during the pandemic. Though taking away their phones or computer is a common punishment for teens, it might do more harm than good right now. "It becomes a really big problem when the teenager is completely cut off from access to their friends," she said. If parents do need to restrict screen time, Dr. Strelitz suggested allowing teens to retain some protected time to talk to their friends each day.
While parents of course have to be more flexible with screen time than in a normal year, Dr. Strelitz said they should also encourage kids to take breaks from the computer. "Staring at a screen for a prolonged period of time without a break is really not good for mental health," she said. "Everybody needs sunshine and fresh air."
Dr. Strelitz said something as simple as taking a break every hour or two for a quick walk around the block can be hugely beneficial. Getting outside also doubles as an opportunity to get some physical activity, which provides an instant mood boost. Even jogging a lap around the backyard or doing 15 jumping jacks in the living room is better than nothing.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is another important component of teens' daily routine. Dr. Strelitz recommended that parents pay close attention to what they're preparing for meals and what their teen is snacking on, so they can encourage healthy choices.
The erosion of teens' usual sleep habits is another issue caused by the pandemic, Dr. Strelitz said. Many parents have been more flexible about bedtimes, leading some teens to stay up later and get less sleep. Even if teens don't need to go to bed as early as they previously did, Dr. Strelitz said it's still important to set a regular bedtime and wake-up time to ensure they're getting enough rest.
"Sleep hygiene is another thing that's really important for kids' mental health," Dr. Strelitz said. Virtual school means that many teens are attending classes and doing their homework from bed, which sends a signal to the brain that this is the place where you should be thinking and working. When it's time to go to bed, teens might have a harder time falling asleep because their brains now associate their bed with being awake. Dr. Strelitz recommended finding a separate space for kids to do schoolwork, whether that's a dedicated desk or a spot at the kitchen table.
Dr. Strelitz said there are a few signs that teens might be struggling with their mental health. If they're becoming more easily annoyed than usual, lashing out at you, or avoiding their friends, that could be a sign of potential depression. Sleeping too much, not sleeping enough, overeating, not eating enough, and not enjoying things they usually like can also be red flags.
Whether or not your teen shows any signs of stress, Dr. Strelitz said parents should check in with their kids regularly. Sit down with them and just ask them how they're feeling, so they have a safe space to express any worries or concerns. "With mental health, normalization is really important so that people don't feel like they're being singled out," she said. "It is something that everyone is dealing with to some degree or another."
Dr. Strelitz also encouraged parents of teenagers to reach out to their pediatrician for advice about how to help their kids through the pandemic. Parents might also want to consider finding a therapist, so teenagers can have another adult to talk to. "Therapists can help give kids and adults coping skills to deal with their feelings in a productive way," she said. Your pediatrician can help you find a therapist, reach out to insurance, and find other mental health resources.
Parents also shouldn't feel afraid to ask for help, Dr. Strelitz said. The stigma around mental health issues sometimes makes parents unwilling to get help until they've reached a breaking point. Even if your child is diagnosed with a mental health condition, they won't face any negative repercussions. "What will follow the child throughout their life is not getting help and trying to deal with these problems later once there's even more unhealthy coping mechanisms that they've internalized," she said.