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The Stress of COVID-19: What it’s doing to our teens

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By Nick Davis, MD

Between politics and the pandemic, it’s no wonder Americans are feeling stressed and anxious these days. And while most adults admit to being concerned about their jobs, the economy or their loved ones, several studies now show that our teens and younger children are feeling the burden, too; and that’s having a toll on their mental health.

When states went into lock down in the spring, students left schools and tried to find a new way to learn at home. For many adolescents, having the structure of a school day routine and support of teachers and peers is critical to their mental well-being. And for kids who see their parents also worrying about finances and health, the impact can be even greater.

There have been several studies in the last few months examining how the pandemic is impacting this already vulnerable population—and the findings are worrisome.

The Harris Poll (in partnership with 4-H Council) found 81% of teens said mental health is a significant issue for them and 64% believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting effect on their generation. More than 60% of teens have said they have felt loneliness; 55% anxiety; 45% excessive stress; and 42% depression. 

We know that extreme stress and anxiety can manifest in teens in a number of ways, from anger and outbursts, to physiological effects (stomach issues, headaches, etc.) to substance abuse.  During *normal* times, studies show that more than one third of adolescents receive mental health services in school. Teachers and fellow students are also important influences in in their mental health support systems. Now more than ever, it’s important for parents to check on their teens and their mental health.

What You Can Do:

Be observant. Look, we know all teens have mood swings and argue with their parents. And everyone is feeling some sadness and stress right now. But if the mood swings seem especially severe, or if you child doesn’t seem to be bouncing back from sadness, it might be time to have a conversation with them about how they are holding up.

Talk and listen. Experts say teens are often reluctant to have difficult conversations with parents, so choosing the right time to bring up the topic is important. Pick a time when they are not distracted by homework or friends, and definitely not in the midst of a disagreement.

Validate and reassure. Let them know they are not alone in their fears and anxiety. Tell them you understand where they are coming from, but let them know their feelings of sadness and loneliness are common.

Be a model for self-care. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re hurting your children, too. Make sure you are making time for regular exercise, healthy meals and are seeking ways to decompress yourself—yoga, reading or meditation, for example. Lastly, if you find your child has prolonged bouts of sadness that they just can’t seem to shake, make an appointment with their physician. There are many effective treatments to help teens with anxiety and depression, from therapy to medications.

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