4 Things You Should Know About Adolescent Mental Health

Nov 23, 2020

By Renee Schneider, PhD

Adolescence can be difficult for even the most emotionally healthy teen (and their family). Physical changes related to brain development, stress hormones, and hormone fluctuations are occurring, as well as shifts in emotional maturity and independence. At times, your teen may act like they are ready to manage life on their own; at other times you’re reminded very clearly that they’re still teens and that their judgment, impulse control, and ability to problem-solve have not yet fully evolved. 

All of that is tough enough in normal times, but now teens also have to cope with the coronavirus pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked on all our lives. Preliminary research published in Psychiatry Research suggests that teenagers living through the pandemic are at risk for anxiety and depression. That’s why it’s important to understand the unique aspects of teen psychology, and why, over the next month, we’ll be exploring the ins and outs of adolescent mental health in a four-part series from Lyra clinicians. 

To start, here are four key aspects to know:

1. Adolescents may show they’re struggling in different ways than young children.

When young children are distressed, they often let us know right away by having a tantrum or acting out; however, distress is not always as evident in adolescence. As the parents of teens know, distressed adolescents can be prone to outbursts too, but a lack of engagement or withdrawal from activities, interests, and relationships, as well as consistent defiance or irritability may also signal a need for support. Other signs that a teen is in distress can include: 

  • Low energy or extreme fatigue
  • Sleeping for much longer and more often than before
  • Picking at their food or curtailing eating altogether; losing weight
  • Falling behind on tasks like schoolwork
  • Saying they don’t care about anything 

In some cases, adolescents can be irritable and anxious and may fluctuate between periods of fatigue and restlessness. Even then, the word to keep in mind is avoidance. This can be a normal reaction to stress, but pay attention when these factors cause your teen to avoid activities or otherwise disrupt their functioning. This happens when they  pull away and want to be apart from friends, family, activities, and social situations. 

Keep in mind: You know your teen best, and what is typical for one teen may not be typical for another. Pay attention to changes that are causing them distress or impeding their functioning on a consistent basis.

2. Teens need to socialize with their peers.

For many adults, losing connection with friends for a few months–or at least downshifting those communications–may feel like an inconvenience (or even a welcome respite for some). For most adolescents, it’s very different; this is a crucial time for their emotional development and their peers are a big part of that process. 

Teens create strong peer groups that help them mature in specific ways, mainly by developing independence from family relationships. This is a vital step in identity formation, helping them develop conflict resolution skills and emotional resiliency. 

With COVID-19 as a threat, many adolescents are unable to see their friends right now, but they still need to work through that development stage. Often, this manifests in more screen time than usual–whether it’s via text, video chat, TikTok or social media—and that’s generally okay. If you notice your teen spending multiple hours per day mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds, however, you may want to support them in finding comfort elsewhere.

3. You don’t need to have perfect mental health to model good mental health care habits for your adolescent.

Of course, adolescents are far from alone in their mental health struggles right now. If you’re feeling sad, anxious, stressed, or angry this year, you’re in good company.  In addition to the pandemic, we’ve been emotionally challenged and drained by the many senseless murders of Black Americans, numerous natural disasters, and a highly contentious election.

Being honest about your own mental health challenges, and letting your adolescent see that you’re actively trying to acknowledge your feelings, and take steps to feel better, can be a valuable lesson. Your personal emphasis on self-care models for your adolescent shows that these kinds of struggles are not only normal, but can be addressed and managed in healthy ways. Your example of successfully managing difficult feelings provides a template your teen can follow now, and when 2020 is well behind us.

4. Your expectations for your adolescent will change as they grow up, and will change throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although  “the new normal” is a common phrase these days, the fact is that none of this feels even close to normal. Talking to grandparents through a care facility window, wearing masks everywhere, stopping and starting in-person school, putting off vacation plans and work trips indefinitely, cancelling family holiday gatherings—every aspect of life, from seemingly minor habits to major decisions, has been disrupted this year. Our expectations of ourselves and each other have to change as well if we’re going to continue to navigate through what’s ahead.

Adolescence is already a time of significant transition. Who your teen was six months ago may be vastly different from who they are now. That process may be even more notable during this time, and it’s worth taking a step back to examine your own perceptions and expectations. Give your teen some space to grow, while supporting their efforts to develop good mental health practices. 

Adolescence can be difficult.  Throw in a global pandemic and everyone is just trying to stay afloat.  Besides setting realistic expectations for your teen, set realistic expectations for yourself.  We’re all just doing the best we can.  If you have concerns about your teen’s mental health, it may be helpful to contact a professional mental health provider. If you believe your teen is at risk of harming themself or others, please call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room.  Nothing is more important than keeping everyone safe.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Renee Schneider, PhD, is the VP of Clinical Quality at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. She has extensive experience and skill in the areas of crisis management, psychological assessment, clinical supervision and intervention, and empirical research. Dr. Schneider also specializes in supporting children and families.