Q: As this pandemic drags on, I worry about the mental health of my teenagers. What signs should I look for?
A: Staying home and away from other people is particularly hard for teens, because their stage of life is all about their peers and becoming independent from their family.
So, it’s not surprising that the pandemic has been hard on the mental health of teens.
Social isolation, and being tethered to home, can be very tough in this age group. For families that are experiencing financial and other stressors, teens often share that burden, which makes things worse.
It’s important for parents to recognize unusual moodiness.
Signs of struggle
Other signs that your teen may be struggling include:
- Isolating more than usual. This may be hard for parents to see, as teens tend to self-isolate naturally. But if it’s really hard to get them out of their room, or they are interacting less with friends, that could be a sign of a problem.
- Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy, and that are still possible to do during the pandemic
- Sleep problems — either sleeping much less or sleeping much more
- Trouble with focus or concentration on schoolwork or other normal tasks
- Dropping grades
- Increase in risky behaviors (which could be anything from drug use to socializing in groups without masks)
- Thinking about death or suicide. Don’t be afraid to ask your teen directly about this if they drop a hint.
If you get an answer that makes you think that they are indeed thinking about suicide, call your doctor immediately. If you can’t reach your doctor, bring your teen to your local emergency room. If your teen won’t go, call 911.
How to help
Here are actions a parent can take to help strengthen a teen’s mental health:
- Make sure that your teen doesn’t stay in their room all day. With quarantines and remote school, this is all too possible. Get them out of their room whenever possible. Have family meals, spend time together in the evenings, and otherwise build some routines that counteract isolation (and give you a chance to keep tabs on your teen).
- Get your teen active. Exercise can make a big difference in all sorts of ways, including boosting mood and easing anxiety and depression. Even a walk around the block is something (if you have a dog, assign your teen some dog-walking duties).
- Take advantage of resources being offered in your school or community. There may be online or social-distanced clubs or other activities that your teen might enjoy.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior faculty editor, Harvard Health Publishing. For additional information, visit www.health.harvard.edu.