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Teen Mental Health During the Pandemic

Being a teen can be tough.  The adolescent years are a uniquely vulnerable and sensitive time in the path toward adulthood. But in the midst of a global pandemic, the loss of most familiar pastimes and community activities and connections, and possibly suppressed worry about family finances – it’s no wonder that teens’ behaviors and state of mind evoke particular concern right now.  In order to help adults understand teens’ struggles to continue with their development according to nature’s plan, but within the context of a world turned upside down, we spoke with Nancy Rhoads, program manager of Riverside’s Home-Based Family Services in Needham, for some perspective and advice.

Q.  We’ve all struggled with the loss of familiar connections and routines during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, but teens are known to struggle in specific ways with their school, sports, and social structures no longer in place. What are the particular issues you see among young people that are different this year?

A.  One of the biggest concerns we can point to is that, with lost social opportunities along with things like sports, clubs, and after-school jobs, is a loss of independence. These are the types of activities that build those skills. Being on a team, or in the school play, or holding a part-time job, all help to build the problem-solving skills that are so important to maturity and growth.  With the far more limited scope of responsibility teens have during the pandemic, we see lost chances for learning, growth, commitment to others, and investment in the future.

Q.  Teens have been labeled irresponsible because of some reports of continued social gatherings during the pandemic. But according to science, the developing adolescent brain is wired for social connection.  How does this process work?

A.  “Individuation” is the term we use to describe the adolescent process of pulling away from family. It is why teens have a need to congregate with each other (and why they dress alike!).  It’s important for them to look around at peer groups for new norms to follow, or to differentiate themselves: “Who am I?  Am I an athlete?  An artist?  Do I drink or not?”  and so on.  It’s their job to prepare for adulthood.  What we see is this process in action.

 Q.  A significantly diminished schedule can actually harm someone who thrives on activity, as many teens do with their seemingly boundless energy. An odd consequence of that can be exhaustion and loss of motivation.  What’s happening there, and how can we counter it?

A. Fewer outlets to expend physical as well as mental energy actually inhibit growth. This is partly true for all of us at any age, but especially so with adolescents who are in an extremely active process of personal development.  Building in some daily routine can help.  It does not have to look the same as their pre-pandemic structure, but maybe taking a walk or run in the morning before going online for school, building in another favorite activity at regular intervals, or learning something new, like cooking or an instrument, can distract from current difficulties as well as engage the mind and body.

Q.  Loneliness in teens has been cited as more acute than in other age groups. Do you foresee any long-term effects of this year’s social losses on young people’s ability to form healthy connections and mature relationships in the future?

A.  We are certainly concerned about kids who already had underlying vulnerabilities. If they were struggling with feeling alone before, that’s now worse.  The worry is that without the long-term perspective of adults, these adolescents will now begin to define themselves according to their experiences during this time: “I am a person who is always anxious.  Depression is a part of my life.”   The one silver lining we see is in kids who had difficulty attending school in person due to anxiety, and are now able to join their classes remotely and experience that social and educational connection.   But in general, we have yet to see the full effect or the nuances of this time.

Q.  Isolation and the day-to-day monotony of long days on the computer for school and social outlets are a feature of life this year. Is the heavier reliance on social media for interaction helping or hurting?

A.  We can’t yet draw major conclusions on the effects of so much social interaction taking place exclusively online. One thing we do find, however, is “Zoom fatigue.”  And so some kids who had previously spent perhaps too many hours in pursuits like online gaming are actually spending less time there, because of their many hours doing remote schooling.  If they replace that time with outdoor activity or a hobby that engages them physically or creatively, then that can certainly be beneficial.

 Q.  What are some healthy ways that adolescents can add structure and social connection to their days? What types of self-care activities are helpful?

A.  A predictable daily routine during the week is key not only to focus and organization for schoolwork, but also for emotional well-being. Consistent sleep and meal times build stability, and that’s an important foundation for kids to rely on as they build resilience and independence.  Get outdoors every day – nature is calming!  And set reasonable expectations – although it seems we should all have more time now to accomplish things, remember that everyone is shouldering a bigger emotional burden with the loss of so many connections, and that takes a toll.  It’s been said many times, but patience and understanding with our kids and with each other goes a long way to getting through this time – and will serve our relationships well as we come out on the other side!

~ Nancy Rhoads has practiced social work in the Boston area since 1993, working with children and families in school settings and through the Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative. She has been with Riverside as Program Director of Home-Based Family Services in Needham since 2019.

~ Riverside’s Home-Based Family Services works with families who have children with emotional and behavioral difficulties or severe mental health needs.  We support the whole family including parents, caregivers, and other children, with tools to cope with and manage crises, or to support a specific goal on the child’s behavioral treatment plan. Learn more here or call 781-752-6857 (Needham area) or 617-284-5131 (Somerville area) for information.

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