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How to Bolster Your Teen’s Mental Health During the Pandemic

Embark Behavioral Health
April 27, 2021

It’s not your imagination: Many parents have noticed their teens struggling with the pandemic shutdown. There’s even new research to back this up. 

The University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital released a survey of over 900 parents, and 45% reported new or worsening mental health behaviors in their teens (ages 13 to 18).  

Also, FAIR Health reports that insurance claims for intentional self-harm, depression, anxiety disorders, and adjustment disorders all skyrocketed for youth ages 6 to 22 between March and May of 2020, showing over 90% increases. Even though the numbers dropped after May, they remained more than 20% higher than the same months in 2019. 

Clearly, the COVID-19 shutdown has hit hard. 

What Happens When “Normal” Disappears? 

At the precise time when teens are biologically primed to gain independence, they find themselves unexpectedly isolated at home.  

  • Schools shut down. 
  • Sports and activities stopped. 
  • Jobs were put on hold as employers closed up shop. 
  • Proms, graduations, class trips, and other senior milestones became drive-thru events. 
  • School-provided services were suspended, like educational, mental health, and other resources.  

And for many families, there have been even harder events to deal with: 

  • Losing employment  
  • Getting COVID-19 or having a loved one get it 
  • Being isolated in the hospital 
  • Grandparents quarantined in nursing homes for months 
  • A family member or loved one dying 

These are legitimate reasons to grieve, and they take their toll. 

My Teen’s Mental Health Will Recover When Things Return to Normal, Right? 

We don’t know how quickly things will get back to normal. Many situations are highly variable. For example: 

  • Some schools are in session while others aren’t.  
  • Some sports are active while others are holding out until next season.  
  • Some businesses will reopen so teens and parents can return to work, while others will remain closed (some permanently). 

Experts warn that the demand for school-based services will be huge when they are offered again. If your teen received services before, there could be a delay before they start up again. 

What Can I Do to Protect My Teen’s Mental Health for the Rest of the Pandemic? 

The unfortunate reality is that we don’t know what’s going to happen next. But the good news is that there are many strategies to cope. 

In fact, the authors of the University of Michigan study suggested tactics to relieve stress and support teens, and parents also shared what they believed helped their kids: 

1. Relax family rules 

Teens aren’t quite adults. They still need boundaries to give life structure.

Parents often limit social activities during the school week, so their teens have time to get their homework done. But, teens usually get time to hang out with their friends at school, and that’s not happening this year. So, if they can get together safely during the week, consider giving them opportunities to do so. 

Parents are also concerned about the amount of screen time teens get, especially now that they spend their whole school day staring at computers or tablets. But teens also don’t get to have conversations during an online school day (like they normally would between classes, at lunch, etc.), so some time spent chatting on social media might help them feel less alone. 

It’s still okay to set limits like “no screen time after 10 p.m.” or “no phones in the bedroom.” It’s all about balance. 

2. Encourage healthy sleep 

Twenty-five percent of parents noticed that their teen’s sleep habits got worse after the pandemic started. It helps to set up a routine that encourages sleep: 

  • Dinner at a regular time 
  • Time outside  
  • Exercise 
  • Going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time daily 

3. Give space, but keep communication open  

Some teens are more withdrawn, especially under stress. There’s less personal space with everyone at home, so your teen may seek this space more often. 

But if the distancing behavior combines with other concerning symptoms, like excessive anger, sleep problems, or substance use, seek help. 

4. Talk to a mental health expert 

If you’re concerned about your teen (especially if you hear them discuss self-harm or suicide), don’t wait to talk to an expert. They’re readily available, and more than ever before. 

People used to view online counseling with a certain level of skepticism, but it became a necessary and reliable option during the pandemic. Other treatments are available as well, but it can be comforting to know an expert is only a phone or video call away. 

Residential treatment options

If you’re concerned that your teen could hurt themselves or that they’re not responding to things they usually enjoy – talk to an expert. This might be a time to pursue a more comprehensive treatment program

One of the most challenging aspects of residential treatment is pulling teens away from their school, friends, and activities. But right now, this might not be quite as disruptive while many elements of our day-to-day lives are closed down due to the pandemic. 

5. Support your own wellbeing, too 

Being a parent during this pandemic isn’t easy. Make sure you’re taking care of your needs for space, healthy food, exercise, sleep, and support from friends or family. Every tip we listed above for your teen applies to you, too.  

Remember that your energy affects your family’s. The authors of the C.S. Mott study noted, “Recent research has shown teen depression during the pandemic to be associated with teens’ own fears and uncertainties, as well as high levels of parental stress.” 

If your teen is having difficulty with life in the pandemic, support your own mental wellbeing so you can be more empathetic, understanding, and clear-headed. It’s important to not transfer your own pandemic-related stress onto your child.  

Think of it as putting on your own oxygen mask first, so you can then help others. This is a good rule for “normal” life, too, whenever that might be! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.