What Teens Need During a Pandemic

Our teenagers need structure and opportunities to contribute.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

I’ve been speaking with Dr. Gillian Kerr, who designs information systems that can be used to reach out to people who need services but can’t meet face-to-face. We were thinking about what mental health professionals and parents can say to teens during this pandemic that would help them deal with the social isolation, shuttering of schools, lack of sports, and the general level of anxiety they are bound to feel when their parents are in financial freefall. We both agree that kids see and hear more than they let on and that all of this chaos is bound to have long-term consequences for our children’s mental health unless we adults step in and offer some help.

While teens hate being told what to do, this is likely one of those times when a little authoritative parenting is in order. The most compassionate thing we can offers teens is our insistence that they fulfill expectations and do things that are in their own best interest.

Here is a series of conversations one can have with a teenager that will give them clues regarding how to maintain their mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

First, start by asking them how they are doing? Then about their friends, their teachers, or anyone else they know. It can sound like this: “Hey how are you doing? How are your friends doing? Their parents? Have you heard anything about your teachers, or other people you know?” If we are going to expect kids to show empathy for others, we need to show them what empathy looks like in practice by modeling the kinds of questions people ask when they are concerned about someone else.

Second, ask teens about their own coping strategies. “I’m curious, without school, are you keeping any routine in your day? What exactly are you doing to fill up your time? And how do those things make you feel?” [For example, playing video games is ok for a couple of days but it can lead to depression if that is all a young person is doing.] Depending on what the youth says, try offering them suggestions for other activities, whether that is playing cards or helping with chores like cooking a meal for the family. Try to choose activities that will get young people doing something new and activities that encourage social contact, even if it is just with other family members.

Third, ask them about personal habits that could strengthen or weaken their mental health. “Are you sleeping the right amount?” For youth, that should be about 9 hours/night. Too much sleep will make them lethargic; too little and they are more likely to become anxious. “Are you eating the right amount of food? Is what you’re eating making you feel good or bad? Is there other food you’d like to eat but are finding it hard to get?” There is much to be said for maintaining a decent diet during a crisis when possible. While junk food may be fun for a day or two, it may seriously depress mood or make a child more vulnerable to stress. A healthy diet is more likely to trigger better mental health. “How about physical activity, are you doing anything to keep active?” Though being home-bound can limit physical activity, even life in a high-rise offers opportunities to take the stairs instead of the elevator, or at the very least the opportunity to walk around the block if the neighborhood is safe. If there is an outdoor space to visit even better, as long as the teen keeps their distance from other people. 

Fourth, we need to talk to our teens about their social connections. There is nothing dangerous about social media if it isn’t the only way a teen is communicating and if it doesn’t become a descent in the negativity of endless social comparisons (“Look, my room is nicer than yours!”). Instead, teens should be encouraged to stay connected with others, in their families, even their neighborhoods. We can ask, “Are there people that you should check in on? Do they need help that you can offer without getting too close? For example, could you drop off groceries at their doorstep? Is anyone shut-in that could use a grocery run?” While getting busy with helping others won’t occupy every hour of a teen’s day, it may make them feel a little more useful, and a whole lot more in control of a situation which they are otherwise powerless to change. This is, after all, a really good time to feel needed by others. We can remind teens, “It’s a great time to call your grandparents if they are around, or do something nice for someone in your family who is probably super stressed.”

Fifth, there are things teens can do to remain optimistic about the future, especially if they have just experienced major disruptions in their lives like the canceling of their graduation or simply not being able to spend time with friends. These include keeping up on the news, but not becoming overwhelmed by it, and looking for good things that can keep their spirits high. For example, New York DJ D-Nice (@dnice) is hosting live dance parties on Instagram. People are using web conferencing services to host virtual potluck dinners in their communities, and there are many stories of people showing incredible kindness towards one another. Encourage teens to share their own sources of support.

Finally, we can ask our teens to show gratitude for what they do have and even notice some of the unexpectedly good things that have come from a pandemic. Appreciating time spent with family, acknowledging the everyday heroics of people we know, taking time to learn a new skill or simply relaxing without the pressure at school, all of these small things are things that our teens might be thankful for.

Rather than letting teens descend into an endless cycle of watching Tiktok videos, videogames and crappy food, we can invite them into conversations that point them in a better direction. If they are going to get through this period of social isolation and uncertainty, they are going to need help from their parents and professional helpers.