YouthZone column: Teens’ emotional health impacted by COVID-19 restrictions

Keith Berglund

It has been well over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic changed all our lives dramatically. The social restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic have left most of us feeling exhausted and stressed out. Families have been in “survival mode” for all or most of that time with children experiencing a range of emotions, including sadness, anger and fear.

The pandemic has been especially difficult for adolescents. Peer groups and social interactions are an important aspect of development for teens, and the loss of these experiences during the pandemic left many teens feeling anxious and disconnected.

If the teens in your life have been struggling to cope throughout the coronavirus pandemic, results from a recent survey conducted by the University of Michigan Department of Pediatrics suggest they are far from alone. A national sample of parents was asked about the emotional impact that pandemic restrictions have had on their teenagers. The results, while not totally unexpected in content, are eye-opening in terms of the magnitude of the impacts.

A majority of parents in the survey reported that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their teen’s ability to interact with their friends. Very few parents indicated that their teens have been getting together with friends on a regular basis.

About half of the parents reported a new or worsening mental health condition for their teen since the start of the pandemic. The negative behaviors reported include changes in their teen’s sleep, withdrawal from family and aggressive behavior. More parents of teen girls than parents of teen boys noted an increase in anxiety/worry or depression/sadness.

As parents, guardians and trusted adults, we can support teens by modeling good coping skills, encouraging healthy habits and working to understand and relate to what they are going through.

An important step toward supporting young people through this challenging time is for caring adults to have empathy for what teens have been experiencing. Peer relationships are a big deal for adolescents because their still-developing brains are wired such that they feel rewarded when they socialize. Additionally, time with friends helps teens establish their identities and begin seeking opportunities to establish independence from their families.

The limitations on these social outlets have left many teens feeling lonely and bored. It is important for adults to make time to ask open-ended questions that show you care about what they are going through. Teens need to feel heard, so offering solutions is less important than simply being available to listen.

Adults looking to help teens manage their feelings can make a difference by modeling good self-care. When parents and guardians take care of themselves, they show adolescents how to deal with stress and be resilient in the face of challenges. Exercising, eating healthily and getting adequate sleep are all great ways to model self-care for teens.

There will be instances where parents and guardians recognize that their teens need more emotional support than they can provide. This is normal and understandable.

Reaching out to other parents and seeking help from mental health professionals are acts of strength in parenting. One in four parents in the survey reported seeking help for their teen from a mental health provider in the last year, and the vast majority of them feel it helped.

As the pandemic wanes, there is a real opportunity for families and communities to better support teens’ emotional well-being. If you need support with the adolescents in your life, YouthZone is here for you. We offer youth coaching, counseling, parent consultations and mental health support.

Keith Berglund joined the YouthZone team as the assistant director in 2019. After earning a degree in marine biology from Occidental College, he started his 25-year teaching career as a science teacher and basketball coach at a middle school. Over the years his role expanded to youth mentor, public servant, nonprofit manger and Love and Logic Facilitator.

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