Why Teens May Struggle More During COVID-19

Ways to protect the next generation’s mental health.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

Outgoing kids may be doing fine online during COVID-19, but young adults who have a quieter style may be suffering. 

Gregarious teens are fueled when they have the opportunity to take center stage on social media. Bold and aggressive, they control the online group chats and activities. Dominating the social milieu, they may unintentionally leave some friends behind.

The quiet kids who worry about hurting a friend’s feelings often shy away from aggressively inserting their opinion. Although this is conscientious and selfless, it is frequently this type of teen who may be struggling.

The moments this teen spends thinking about how to constructively contribute to the conversation are quickly seized by a less thoughtful teen in the group chat who blurts out a sentiment and diverts the conversation. After a few minutes, the quiet and thoughtful teen is now a few steps behind. Eventually, it is almost impossible to break into the chat without sounding completely obtuse.

Yet, it is the shy and thoughtful teen that is frequently the voice of reason and safety. So, helping this segment of the teen population may also help steer a slew of teens in a healthier direction. Understanding a teen’s developmental and situational plight is critical when attempting to help.

Developmentally, teens are grappling with the difficult task of identity formation. They are often more insecure. Every step teens take towards independence forces them to think about who they are in relationship to the world.

This is an incredibly overwhelming task, but in lieu of the current situation, it is exponentially more complicated and terrifying. Because they are in the process of taking strides away from the family, in the form of independence, they are vulnerable, self-conscious, and in need of peer acceptance. Peer validation becomes a primary need. Today’s constraints of online socialization may have a negative impact on many teens.

In addition, when developmental tasks and goals are not met, teens are more likely to be depressed. An alarming thought because a teen is developmentally driven to separate and individuate, yet is currently, stranded at home. Add feeling deserted and “out of it” because the only social outlet is online, and a teen’s mental health may be in jeopardy.

Situationally, the online social world of a teen is confusing. The interpersonal data that facial expressions, voice intonations, and body language provide has diminished. In the absence of these helpers, online communication may feel more difficult. Without the assistance of emojis, massively overused by myself and many other 40-something moms, the emotional undertones of a message are often elusive.

Confused about the tone of a text from a friend keeps a shy teen spinning for hours. Spending days on end worrying about text exchanges often results in an anxiety-ridden teen feeling depleted. Fixating and obsessing over the wording of a text may be so overwhelming the teen eventually withdraws.

In addition, often social media is showy and superficial. A certain type of teen may be less comfortable engaging in this type of material. The thirst for a more meaningful existence is healthy but may be lost if social media is the teen's only social outlet.

The experience of being left out is extraordinarily painful for many teens. Unable to distract themselves with their usual pursuits, they may feel devastated. Feelings of isolation may intensify. Finding a way to help is crucial. There are five things a parent can do to assist the teen. They include empathizing, allowing the teen to tell you how to help, bringing in a pet, getting the teen outside, and making the teen laugh.

A parent who is aware of the teen’s developmental plight may be better able to empathize with the teen’s insecurities and tendencies to be self-conscious. Saying empathic statements such as:

  • “You are worried about fitting in. I get it. I was too.”
  • “It hurts to feel left out. I understand. You have every right to be upset.”
  • “You are panicked that you said the wrong thing. It’s a huge worry. I understand.”

Empathizing with teens allows them to feel understood which prevents them from feeling totally alone in their predicament. Because the teen feels like the parent understands, the teen feels closer to the parent and more open to the parent’s support.

After the empathy, it is important to help the teen problem solve. Ask the teen, “How can I help?” “What can I do?” “What would help?” Allowing the teen the opportunity to tell the parent how to help can maintain the teen’s dignity and protect his or her strides towards independence.

Next, bring in additional reinforcements. Pets are extremely comforting and soothing. Many teens find a pet extremely soothing when they are in distress.

After the teen has calmed down, remind the teen that his or her best qualities are the ability to be humble, conscientious, kind, and thoughtful. Unfortunately, these qualities may not serve them well in the teen years with social media, but they are the best qualities a human being can possess.

Getting the teen outside may also help tremendously. Being in nature reduces anxiety and releases endorphins. It can be grounding, centering and soothing.

Finally, make the young adult laugh. Download old SNL skits, clips of their favorite comedian, or funny dog and cat videos. Similar to nature, laughter also releases endorphins and reduces anxiety.

Teens are deceptively private but do not be led astray. They still need support, empathy, and love. Respectfully stay emotionally attuned and involved. If a teen expresses unsafe ideas, it may be important to access professional help.

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