As social distancing, quarantine and self-isolation become normal parts of all of our vocabularies while we deal with the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, the general vibe for people of all ages is… not so great. For adults, it’s trying to work, parent and exist primarily from home alongside health and financial concerns — which can be stressful and anxiety-inducing. For teens, the effects on overall mental health are also evident. As they adjust to an unprecedented shift in their educational, social and personal lives, it’s an added pain point for an already complicated and tumultuous time.
As a parent, all you want to do — pandemic or not — is to give your child the tools to be happy and healthy. As your teen gets older, there’s a joy to letting them discover the adult they’re going to be and grow more independent. Now that they’re dealing with a pandemic-mandated increase in close-quartered time and a decrease in those cool growing experiences, there’s a lot to juggle: How can you keep them feeling safe and happy when the world is a less-than-safe-and-happy place (even less than normal)? How can you honor their independence and space when there’s not a lot of space to work with and a whole lot of new rules? How can you encourage frank and open conversations when there’s a lot of door closing — and significantly more screen time?
If you’re struggling to answer these questions, you’re not alone: When SheKnows’ Hatch Lab surveyed roughly 500 parents about their children’s mental health amidst the coronavirus pandemic, nearly half (44 percent) with teens ages 13-17 reported that they were “concerned their kids are depressed right now.” Talking to parents and experts, we got some insight into why teens are vulnerable to experiencing mental health issues while in quarantine — and how to navigate it.
Conversations about quarantine with your teen
“I don’t think that the communication tricks have really changed even though our kids are under our roof all the time,” Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician and author of Decoding Boys and The Care and Keeping of You tells SheKnows. “The same tried-and-true methods of connecting with kids exist now. In fact, we’re home and together as a family many more hours in the day than we ever were — even families where one or more of the adults in the home are on the front lines and they are heading to work in essential jobs,” she says. “And so, in this funny way, we’re in a moment where there are many more opportunities to break down communication barriers, and the strategies are no different than they were before.”
What’s that strategy, again? “Be present, put down your own devices and let your kids know that you want to talk to them and you’re interested in listening to them,” Dr. Natterson says. That first step is huge for laying a foundation for conversations with your teen. Even if they don’t bite immediately or are reluctant, standoffish or close a door in your face (yes, it happens to everyone!), just giving them persistent, open-ended opportunities to see you as someone interested and invested in their feelings is powerful.
“The second tip is to actually listen and let them lead the conversation a little bit,” she says. “If you have a kid who shuts the door and pushes you out, knock on that door and see if you can engage that child. It’s not a one-and-done. Try as often as you can, because the repetitive act shows your child that you are interested.”
If you’re knocking and getting a brick wall response, try asking a question through the door or cracking it open and having a brief conversation that way. “You want to essentially gently pull your child out from behind that closed door,” Dr. Natterson says. “For some kids that takes a lot of effort, but it’s well worth it because, if they know you’re interested in engaging, they will often allow you to engage.” It may take a little time, but, well, we’ve got that right now.
Watch our video from real teens about how they’re feeling about quarantine, so far:
One mother of an eighth grader from New York has tried to strike the complicated balance between checking in on her daughter and respecting that they’re sharing space in a weird, unprecedented time: “I’ve tried to connect with my daughter during the day, but she literally tells me to ‘go away.’ I want to check in with her more, see how she’s doing — how is remote school? Is she talking to her friends? — but it’s just making her feel like I’m hovering and all up in her business at a development stage where she doesn’t want anything to do with me,” she says. “So I’ve tried to back off and stick with our pre-quarantine practice of talking about our days and checking in with each other as a family over dinner.”
It’s a tactic that seems to be working, but as she points out, “It’s weird to not parent all day while my kid is in the next room! I’m worried that she’s depressed or overwhelmed during the day and I’m not helping her through it. Then we all watch TV together at night and joke around like usual. It’s all weird.”
In fact, the reality of how extreme things have gotten — and the extent of what quarantine will mean for immediate and longterm plans — didn’t totally set in, the mom says, until they had the conversation about schools not opening back up this academic year.
“We’d been hinting at it being a possibility, but when it became a reality I saw this look wash over my daughter’s face and I realized she was just then processing what that really meant,” the mom says. “She really hadn’t connected the dots until just then. No more school with those friends. No 8th grade graduation. No overnight class trip. She’s disappointed and frustrated but still keeping a lot of feelings inside. I can tell she’s more depressed since the realization. It breaks my heart and there’s nothing I can do to fix it.”
Not that she isn’t trying: At dinner, they talk as a family about the feelings of grief that have come along with quarantine and the pandemic — the frustration, sadness, anxiety and anger that come with it: “I explained Kubler-Ross and her five stages of grief because that’s what we’re all going through, grieving the lives we thought we’d be living right now,” the mom continues. “Mainly, my husband and I are just trying to name our feelings about everything to hopefully model how we’re doing and leave it open for our daughter to do the same, whether to us or to her friends or teachers via virtual interactions.”
Dr. Natterson sees the impact of kids feeling “stripped of their ability to socially connect with one another in a meaningful way” as one of the immediate things causing problems for them right now.
“Without the ability to go out and experience life together, there isn’t a whole lot for them to talk about, right?” she points out. “They have all this great technology where they can see each other and that’s wonderful, but when they do connect, they feel like they don’t have a lot to connect about because nothing’s happening other than coronavirus.”
Why this might be extra hard on a teen brain
One reason there are complicated feelings around — and reactions to — being in quarantine is the fact that teens’ brains are still “under construction,” Dr. Natterson says. While they’re able to understand a lot of what’s going on and to have strong, emotional reactions to it (thanks to their fully mature limbic system that is “responsible for emotion and risk reward and motivation and also impulsivity”), it doesn’t change the fact that the typical growing pains of brain development (waiting for their prefrontal cortex — “AKA the CEO of the brain that handles thoughtful, longterm decisions”) can be even more trying in a crisis.
“So there’s a real imbalance in the tween and teen brain between doing things that are emotionally driven or a little bit impulsive and doing things where our kids think through the longterm consequences,” she adds. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — after all, lots of innovators do some of their best “disrupting” while that part of their brain is still growing — but it doesn’t change the fact that the imbalance can also lead to trouble and shortsighted decisions that might be escalated by being in a quarantine situation. And what that means for the riskier behaviors that teens are already engaging in? Well, we’re still not sure.
“I think it’s going to be a long time before we understand the impact of the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders on the developing brain and just the life experience of Generation Z,” Dr. Natterson says. “I’m desperate to see any data on how they’re spending their time now on screens, and what risk behaviors they’re engaging in now that are different from before. Are they online looking at porn more often? Are they sending nudes more often? Are they engaging in behaviors on screens that are considered high risk behaviors more than they were before the pandemic or are they doing it less? I don’t think we’re going to know the answer to those questions for a long time.”
When should parents be concerned?
For parents, it can already be difficult to tell regular “teen angst” from something more serious. And, of course, there are signs to look out for when it comes to anxiety or depression in teens: disruption of sleep or eating patterns, irritability, a lack of energy, a loss of interest in activities that once excited them, worry, and difficulty concentrating, among others, according to Stanford Children’s Hospital.
But you know your child best, and it’s better to act if you’re worried than let things get worse, Dr. Natterson says. “Go with your gut instinct. As a parent, we are spending a lot more time with kids on average than we did before. That means that we are going to see some things that we never saw before, but we’re also going to see some new things. And if your gut is telling you that the new things that you’re seeing raise some flags, then you want to reach out and get a little bit of help navigating,” she says. “And ironically, even though we’re all kind of locked in our house right now, if a particularly great time to get mental health help because therapists and counselors are available by video chat — and you don’t need to figure out the logistics of how to get to them.”
Ultimately, because of all the unanswered questions about what the pandemic is doing to everyone’s mental health, Dr. Natterson encourages parents to take advantage of this “found” time.
“We never know what they’re going to remember and take with them from their childhood, but I’m pretty sure that there are going to be scenes from this point in time that play through their mind for the rest of their lives — so grab the moment as a parent,” she says. “If there are times when you can do that thing that stands out as a particularly loving or supportive thing because you have the bandwidth and the ability and you’re around right now, do it. If you can do the fun thing, do it. If you can have the hard conversation, have it.”
If you need help now, text CRISIS to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor through Crisis Text Line. It’s free, 24/7 and confidential.