Dec 1, 2020
By Katherine McKenna, LCSW
Adolescence is notoriously fraught with conflicts and challenges, and believe it or not, that’s a good thing. This is the time when teenagers are learning to establish their identities, navigate hormonal shifts, develop independence, and build resilience. But with this growth comes difficulty, and the unprecedented disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic can exacerbate the typical problems teens face.
The good news is that as a parent, you don’t just have to grit your teeth and bear it—there are many ways you can promote good mental health habits that will not only help your teen, but also bring more resolution and peace to the whole family. Here are six strategies worth considering:
If you look at your adolescent and see a young child, you’re not alone. It can be a big adjustment to shift your perspective and realize that your teen isn’t a little kid anymore. Many times, they may encounter adult-size problems like anxiety, depression, trauma, and uncertainty. Communicating openly and directly can build trust, and help them see that they can communicate openly and directly with you in return.
Remember, though, that communicating doesn’t just mean talking, it also means listening. You may be tempted to jump in with a solution or your first reaction may be disapproval or judgment. Try to remember that letting your teen talk things through is crucial, and remind yourself that listening doesn’t mean agreeing, it’s just a place to start. Try asking neutral, open-ended questions such as, “What was that like?” instead of rushing to correct their thoughts and reactions, or suggesting possible action.
Whether they’re confiding in you or you’re just having an everyday conversation, pay attention to behavior, not just words, especially if you notice any distinct changes that are out of the ordinary for your teen.
For example, their words may be upbeat and positive, but they’re also extra-fidgety, or experiencing unexplained nausea or headaches, rapid breathing, and attempts to avoid —all signs of anxiety. Meanwhile, excessive fatigue, withdrawal, loss of interest in activities, and tearfulness may be a cue that symptoms of depression are at play.
The pandemic has prompted many families to spend much more time together than they did before, but simply being around one another—such as doing independent activities in the same room—isn’t always quality time. The connection that comes from intentionally participating in positive activities together, even if only for 5 minutes, can have incalculable benefits for your teen’s mental health
Planning some of these activities can not only build resilience in your relationship, but also in your teen, by helping them develop other attributes like fairness, empathy, communication, problem solving, and cooperation. For example, a family game night might include all of these in one session. Your teen will likely feel a sense of belonging and self-worth, which creates resiliency. Plus, having fun together is a great stress reliever for the entire family.
Teenagers may look like adults, but they’re not. One day you might swear your adolescent is all grown up, and the next you feel like they’re having temper tantrums. That type of inconsistency is a normal part of adolescence since teens don’t have the tools to manage their emotions yet. They’re still developing in every way, and even if they’re done growing physically, they still have a ways to go with emotional development.
Also, remember that teens will be impacted by the pandemic in different ways, and these impacts will change their behavior, even day to day. Children in the same family living in the same house can have very different reactions to what’s going on, and it’s helpful to temper your expectations, and to know that this is ok.
Parents can be in a tough spot when it comes to their own mental health needs. On one hand, you want to seem like a rock-solid source of emotional support and you may think showing mental health struggles may cause your kids to see cracks in that foundation. On the other hand, we’re not robots. Trying to program ourselves to seem like we’ve got it all together at all times is not only unrealistic, but puts even more stress on you—especially right now, when you might be overwhelmed already.
The fact is that kids generally know when their parents are upset, and seeing them handle that in a positive way, as well as talk openly about the situation, can be the healthiest option for everyone. It models appropriate behavior for teens, and shows that speaking up and being honest about mental health struggles is for everyone.
That said, it’s important not to share everything with your teen in a way that might make them feel responsible for your care. Feeling like they have to cheer you up whenever you’re sad or give advice about your challenges is too much for them to carry. Instead, let them know you might be miserable, anxious, frustrated, or concerned, but that you will be okay. This shows them what it’s like to talk about feelings in a constructive, healthy way.
The other step in this process is letting your teen know when you feel better and how you reached that outcome. Maybe you spoke with a therapist or took action to reduce work stress. That models good mental health care and the value of addressing what’s going on, rather than implying that difficult feelings just disappear on their own.
Moody, rude, sleeping in until noon, making snide remarks, eye rolling, constant tech usage—it can be just as challenging being around a teen as it is to be one. While these are all considered fairly normal adolescent behaviors, it’s helpful to stay aware of when they happen, especially if there’s a marked behavior change within a short period of time that negatively impacts their functioning. If you’re not sure what may behaviors may be concerning, talk with your pediatrician or a licensed therapist. Get their input on what they think might be going on and what steps you or your teen can take to feel better.
Navigating through the uncertainty and constantly shifting circumstances of the pandemic can be hugely challenging for you and your kids. By putting some mental health strategies into place for you and your teenagers, you can create a feeling of support, stability, and continuity that will put the whole family on more solid ground.
Want to learn more about adolescent mental health? Check out part 1 of our series on teen mental health, and stay tuned for more.
If you want help connecting with a therapist, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up here.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Katie is a Clinical Lead at Lyra Health and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specializes in depression and crisis management in adolescent and adult populations. She has 15 years of experience providing community-based mental health and crisis services to underserved populations. Prior to joining Lyra, Katie was a therapist with a clinic providing evidence-based treatment to suicidal teenagers involved in the San Francisco foster care system. Katie also provided in-person mental health services for San Francisco based non-profits. In her current role at Lyra Health, Katie consults with employers and managers on crisis management strategy for employees in distress, and offers clinical support to the clinicians in the Lyra Health network.