The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of people of all ages, but teens were hit especially hard. According to the CDC, more than a third of high school students (37%) reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. “These data echo a cry for help,” said CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry. We all want to get back to normal as soon as possible, but research suggests that’s harder for teens than for adults. Here are three ways the pandemic may still be affecting your teen, plus four steps to help them bounce back.

Teens are more vulnerable to stress because of brain changes that take place during adolescence. A study published in the journal Neuroscience found that exposure to stress in the teen years is linked to increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, and the effects can last well into adulthood. Researchers think that’s because stress changes how the limbic and cortical regions of teens’ brains develop. Intense stress in adolescence may have a more lasting effect on mental health than stress experienced in adulthood, and teens may need more support getting back to their baseline.

A sense of belonging and connection is crucial during the teen years, so school closures, isolation and everyday disruptions to their social lives have had a lasting impact on teens’ mental health. \”They\’ve been cut off from their peers, which is critical for youth to develop that sense of identity, which this stage is really all about,\” says Sandra DeJong, MD, MSc, a child-and-adolescent psychiatrist. The impact of broken connections is felt in different ways: Teens may worry about their safety or the safety of family members, fear future threats to their friendships, or experience increased loneliness or social anxiety. 

The teen years are when young people start to craft their identity by figuring out their values, interests and the qualities that make them who they are. Almost everything teens do becomes part of that exploration, from school and friendships to hobbies and after-school jobs. Milestones are also important for identity-formation because they validate teens as they take steps toward adulthood. The pandemic made it harder for teens to explore who they are by turning everyday life upside down and taking away events like graduations, team sports and other extracurricular activities. When teens grieve these losses, they feel they’ve missed out on a piece of who they were meant to become. 

How to Help

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with long-term effects of the pandemic, these four steps offer strategic support for teens’ mental health: 

  1. Acknowledge when your teen is struggling. Let them know it’s not their fault and they are not alone. Teens went through a major global crisis when their brains were developmentally vulnerable, and they don’t have adult-level perspectives or coping skills yet. It’s totally normal for them to feel lasting effects and to need help addressing them.
  2. Normalize talking about mental health and seeking support. Make sure neither you nor your teen feel like you have to fix things alone. Whether they’re dealing with anxiety, depression, grief or other pandemic-related stresses, a teen-focused licensed therapist can give your teen tools to understand their emotions and work towards realistic goals for well-being.
  3. Make self-care a priority. According to the Mt. Sinai Adolescent Health Center, “Self-care refers to intentionally engaging in practices and activities that reduce stress.” It looks different for everybody, but here’s a hint: hours spent scrolling on social media or playing video games are not self-care. Instead, think about mindful breathing, moving your body, being creative, having in-person fun with friends and family, and anything else that helps your teen stay grounded.
  4. Help them see their resilience. While we acknowledge the impact of the pandemic, let’s also celebrate teens for being resilient. Surviving hard things teaches us how to be tough, capable and compassionate. By overcoming challenges, we learn how to solve problems and realize what really matters. Remind your teen that even if they’re still struggling, they are also strong. Point out how much they’ve learned and all the positive ways their experiences have shaped who they’re becoming. Resilience helps teens cultivate hope and look forward to a brighter future.

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