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Understanding Teens' Invisible Struggles During COVID-19

Many teens are bored, anxious, self-conscious, and lonely right now.

Anna Shivets from Pexels
Source: Anna Shivets from Pexels

Our teens are suffering.

Children are not used to a routine that is repetitive with so little change from day to day. Nowadays, their school days consist of sitting in front of a screen with little variation, little social interaction, little true academic instruction, little focus, and a whole lot of missing of their school routine as they remember it to be prior to March 2020.

Their extracurricular activities are limited and interactions are not the same. Spontaneous social interactions are being missed. Our teens miss sitting next to each other, sharing lunch together, riding the school bus together, and all of the conversations and interactions that took place on a daily basis. One student shared with me that the biggest highlight of his day has been what he is going to eat. How incredibly boring and disappointing. Many teens (and adults) took for granted the variety of their days and the freedom that they had—until it was gone.

I work with teens on a daily basis who are gaining weight because of the little movement involved in their day. They are uncomfortable, embarrassed, and even more self-conscious than ever. Their days are long and monotonous and many are struggling to complete their assignments.

The pandemic has resulted in spikes in anxiety, depression, and poor focus—but most teens are struggling with these challenges invisibly, escaping their parents' or teachers' notice. Many of the students who were high achievers pre-pandemic are refusing to log on to classes, attend school in person when it is available, and are struggling to keep up with their assignments.

Here's what many teens are coping with, and why:

High Anxiety

More and more of our teens are showing greater anxiety. Many struggled pre-pandemic, and it has only worsened as greater time has passed. What is triggering their anxiety? It could be any of a number of things, including:

  • The monotony of each school day
  • High amounts of academic content
  • Struggling to understand the content
  • Complicated assignments
  • Multiple assignments for each class
  • In-class tests and quizzes with a time limit
  • Writer’s block; not having ideas, enough ideas, or “good enough” ideas
  • Multiple missed assignments in each class
  • School shuts down for two weeks when the number of cases spikes
  • Team sports being canceled or delayed due to a teammate who has the virus

Many teens are dreading each school day and are feeling more and more behind as each day passes. If this is the case for your teen, reach out to your child’s teachers and ask for accommodations. If necessary, request a 504 Plan (if your child has a formal diagnosis) that offers accommodations such as:

  • Extended deadlines on class-based assignments, tests, quizzes, and homework
  • Forgive or exempt assignments at the end of the marking period if your child has a high number of missed assignments that can’t be made up
  • Regular check-ins by the guidance counselor with your child about work completion and areas of struggle
  • School-based counseling that can take place in school, if your child has an in-person option, or via video conferencing.

Depression

Our teens are grieving for all that they have missed and are continuing to miss through yet another school year. They miss all of the social events and interactions that they have not been able to have and all the milestones that each grade holds.

Our teens are more lethargic and complain of feeling tired consistently. Part of this is the apathy and low energy that results from low movement and activity (sitting behind a screen all day) and part of it is the emotional drain that comes with the overriding awareness that life is different and we are still in the middle of a pandemic with no real end in sight.

You may notice that your teen is eating more or eating less, sleeping more, or sleeping less. Take note and ask questions. Reach out to your child’s teachers and gain their perspective on any marked changes in your child’s demeanor, behavior, or academic performance. This may also be the time to reach out to a therapist so your child has a neutral person with whom to share their emotional struggles and process his or her grief.

Poor Focus

Even if your child wasn’t struggling with attention, initiation, or follow through prior to the pandemic, your child may be struggling now. Virtual learning, half-day in-person schedules, and social distancing have created a COVID-fueled attention problem that is pervasive and real.

Many of my students are struggling to get started on their assignments even if they are motivated. If they are able to get started, they struggle to maintain their focus to work through their assignment and complete it. If they complete it, they may forget to actually hand it in. The number of potholes that are faced by our teens is immense and students who were once “on top of it” are also struggling.

You may have noticed that your teen is struggling to maintain attention during a class in which they are looking at a bunch of faces, foreheads, or shoulders rather than entire people. They are squinting to see what the teacher is presenting and are distracted by their own thoughts, their environment, or the fact that they can appear to be looking at the camera but actually be on another page or website.

How can we help?

  • Help your child to maintain a list of assignments to be completed for the day as they gain them. Maintain a list off of the computer or Google Classroom so that assignments can be referenced throughout the day and with the ability to cross out completed assignments
  • For starting tasks, ask your child if he would like for you to be present so that he may get started. Oftentimes, having another person in the room creates accountability, and beginning a task becomes easier. Once he begins, you can set up a system to check in every 20 or 45 minutes
  • Set a timer and work for a prescribed period of time
  • Take breaks in between assignments
  • Decide if you want to start with easier or quicker assignments vs. more difficult or assignments that will require a greater period of time
  • Prioritize—work on assignments due soon or based on the due date
  • Break down complex assignments into segments that can be completed over a few days

Our teen's mental health is in jeopardy. They have lost their motivation and are struggling emotionally through this time of unpredictability. Very little feels the same and our teens are starting to become worn down. Take note and ask your teen questions. Seek help from a therapist and through your school.

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