Helping Teens Navigate the COVID-19 World

If you have teenagers in your life, you’ve probably seen firsthand how COVID-19 has uprooted their lives and norms. But until recently, most research focused on how adults and younger children are coping. Now, a survey conducted in May by the National 4-H Council is shedding light on the effects the crisis is having on teens. Here’s what all adults who are involved in teen lives need to know.

The Issues

From the loss of time honored traditions (prom, graduation) and physical isolation, to the sudden immersion in online learning and uncertainty about what will happen with schools in the fall, teens are in a unique position with the COVID-19 crisis. They’ve spent years building toward the future they imagine, but unlike adults, teens have done this within the highly structured environments of school and extracurricular activities. Once the pandemic hit, their entire structure collapsed.

State by state reopening plans have been disorganized at best, as new surges of COVID cases have caused some areas to pause or roll back their reopening processes. Your teen might have returned to sports training or started visiting restaurants again, only to have those activities shuttered once more. Or you may be in a slowly reopening state, or live in a high risk household, and your teen may not have left the house since March. Either way, life is anything but normal even months into the crisis.

Teens are also in a unique phase of psychological development. They’re more likely than younger children to grasp the magnitude of what’s going on, including the potential risks of activities they once took for granted. But because their brains are still developing and they have much less experience than adults, they are also far less likely than adults to be able to process the swiftly changing data and myriad of social media “experts” advice, and put it all into perspective. And the research shows that they’re having mental health challenges as a result.

According to the 4-H survey, roughly 70% of teens are currently struggling with their mental health, and 64% believe that going through the COVID crisis will permanently affect the mental health of their generation. Anxiety, stress, and depression are the most noted problems, at 55%, 45%, and 43% respectively. A stunning 82% of teens don’t believe that mental health is talked about enough in the United States, and 79% wish that schools offered safe spaces for difficult conversations about mental health.

Teen Resilience

The news isn’t all bad. The current generation of teens was born in the wake of 9/11. Older teens who grew up on the Gulf Coast were small children when Hurricane Katrina tore through the region. This is the first generation that was born into social media and the bullying that comes along with it. Modern teens have already faced significant hardships, which has led them to be tough and resilient. Still, teens are not small adults, and to bounce back from adversity requires some practical intervention from those who love  and care for them.

Practical Tips for Parents and Other Adults

The American Psychological Association has developed a list of strategies for teens who want to become more resilient. Parents and other adults in teens’ lives should help them implement these strategies by actively setting some boundaries. These include:

  • Turn off the news: Staying informed is good, but watching continuously only builds stress.
  • Limit screen time: When staying home is the only option, screens become a lifeline. But at least some portion of life should be spent on analog activities such as exercising, cooking, or even playing board games.
  • Stay connected: Some experts have begun using the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.” This underscores the fact that social connections are vital, even when people can’t physically be together. Schedule family time, and encourage your teens to call friends and relatives or connect with them via an online platform.
  • Find control: When your whole world is falling apart, you need to feel like something in your life is under your control. Whether it’s redecorating her room, learning a new skill, or letting go of a toxic friendship, help your teen find something that she alone can take charge of.
  • Build new routines: Everything may be up in the air, making it tough to plan for next week, let alone next year. But that doesn’t mean teens shouldn’t keep striving for their goals. Sit down together and map out a game plan that fits the current reality, while leaving room for flexibility as things change. Encourage your teen to take at least one baby step on that journey every day.

Being a teen is tough, no matter what the circumstances, and resilience is a skill that teens must learn and practice. A global pandemic that entirely uprooted life as we know it was sure to take a toll. But today’s teens are strong, and with the help of parents and other trusted adults, they can develop the resilience they need to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity. 

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