Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick
As the pandemic continues, parents, psychologists and psychiatrists are
seeing a significant increase in the number of mental health issues in
adolescents. Teenagers, like so many, have experienced the loss of normalcy
and security. Parents are their best source of comfort and guidance.
Moe Gelbart, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, founder and executive
Thelma McMillen Recovery Center and director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial, says there are
many ways parents can support their children when life presents difficulty,
loneliness and grief. “They are missing their friends, activities,
extended families, their sports, their schools. And it begins to get to
them. They are waiting for someone to show them what to do. They need
to know there is support for them.”
Lindsey Brucker, MD, a Torrance Memorial Physician Network adolescent medicine specialist,
says teens need their friends. Relying only on social media is not a solution,
and it can make depression and anxiety worse.
“Teens should take some time to get outside and do an activity with
a few friends while wearing masks and maintaining a safe social distance.
Or try to find a fun hobby to do for a short time each day, such as arts
and crafts, music or sports. Good self-care is of utmost importance right
now,” Dr. Brucker says.
When school and work are both happening at home, it is difficult to relax.
Schedules and routines start to blur. Parents can support their teens
by modeling healthy behaviors such as eating healthy foods and exercising,
relaxing and getting enough sleep.
“Virtual learning is hard. Staring at the computer screen during
the school day and being expected to pay attention and absorb the material
is a major challenge. It’s leading to fears about not being able
to keep up with classes,” Dr. Brucker says.
Pressure to perform has to be decreased and adapted to the situation. “Everyone
needs to take their foot off the gas. We need to understand this is difficult
and our expectations have to be different. Everyone has to do their best,
but try not to overwhelm the kids,” Dr. Gelbart says.
Be ready to listen
Parents might not know what to do when they see their children showing
signs of anxiety or depression. The important thing is to communicate—but
“Kids need to be able to talk to their parents about their feelings
and receive respect and understanding. Don’t judge them or minimize
their anxiety. Telling your child ‘it’s fine’ just makes
them shut down,” Dr. Gelbart says.
Parents often find their help is not well-received. Communicating support
requires trust. “Help not asked for is criticism. If someone is
not asking for help, even if you are correct they hear it as criticism.
If you want to give them advice, ask permission first,” Dr. Gelbart says.
“If parents aren’t sure what’s going on, that’s
completely OK. It can be so hard to tell at times because teens can be
very private with their feelings,” Dr. Brucker says. “But
it is important to notice when mood effects are becoming a more serious
At the first sign of distress, parents should be more observant of their
child’s mood and behavior and offer support. “Early intervention
is better than later,” Dr. Gelbart says. “Anxiety comes in
many shapes and colors, but it is a very treatable condition. Children
and adolescents need to know they will not always feel anxious.”
Recognize serious symptoms
Anxiety is distinguished by the ways it affects everyday activities. Minimal
anxiety can be motivational, while severe anxiety causes normal activities
to become dysfunctional. Things like completing schoolwork, eating, sleeping
and normal routines are all deeply affected by severe anxiety. Depression
is more likely to cause behavioral changes such as isolation, avoidance,
sleeping too much or not at all and long bouts of crying.
Adolescents who are showing signs of serious depression or anxiety need
professional attention. Parents might have reservations about therapy,
but sometimes it’s easier for teens to talk through their emotions
and discuss coping strategies with a therapist.
“Mental health issues are just as painful as medical issues, and
you wouldn’t ignore a medical issue. It helps them to hear from
a professional there is nothing wrong with them and they are having a
normal response to a very tough situation,” Dr. Gelbart says.
Dr. Brucker says parents should pay attention to comments suggesting their
teen is feeling hopeless or worthless. “If a parent is concerned
their teen may be having suicidal thoughts or engaging in self-harm behaviors,
developing an eating disorder or relying on drugs and alcohol, this should
be addressed immediately by calling their doctor or mental health professional.”
Feelings of anxiety are normal for teenagers. The pandemic has exacerbated
many teens’ anxiety because it has separated them from their friends
and their school routine and increased their sense of isolation.
“The things they normally used to cope with stress have been removed,”
Dr. Gelbart says. “You have to find substitutes to fall under your
umbrella of safety. Provide them with the things that can be done and
show them how to make the best of it.”
Dr. Gelbart says the pandemic is an opportunity to teach children they
are resilient. “Parents can show their children there are good things
still happening in spite of the pandemic, and even some good things are
happening because of the pandemic. This is learning to live with adversity.
This will pass. We need to learn to thrive.
Helpful Tips for Parents
- Encourage mindfulness when dealing with your child’s emotions and
avoid being judgmental.
- Empathize with their frustrations.
- Try doing activities together like cooking, gardening or exercising to
continue to build their trust.
- Support a healthy diet and encourage plenty of sleep.
- Watch out for signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and isolation and
seek professional attention if needed.
- Be a good listener. If your impulse is to offer advice, ask first
Helpful Tips for Kids
- Don’t be afraid to share your feelings.
- Let your parent or a trusted mentor know if you think you may need outside guidance.
- Spend less time on social media apps and other outlets that may lead to
negative thoughts or emotions.
- Eat well and get plenty of sleep.
- Spend time outdoors.
- Take deep breaths to release stress.
- Write in a journal to help process your feelings.