Editor's note: This article was sponsored by THIRA Health.
As hard as COVID-19 social isolation is on parents (and it’s plenty hard), this stress-inducing scenario may be harder on teens. Research shows that social isolation is particularly difficult for adolescents — lonely teens are more likely to be depressed and have an increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease in adulthood. As the coronavirus closures stretch on, health experts expect to see an increase in suicides.
“Among teens and young adults, we’re seeing an increase in depression, anxiety and also in non-suicidal self-harm behaviors, such as cutting, along with more irritability, temper outbursts, and a profound sense of hopelessness and helplessness,” says Mehri Moore, M.D., chief medical officer and founder of THIRA Health, a mental health treatment center for both adolescent girls and women with anxiety and depression in Bellevue, Washington.
Development on hold
Social isolation and loneliness undermine everyone’s physical and mental health, not just that of teenagers. But certain key characteristics of adolescence make quarantine particularly damaging, says Moore. “The highlight of this developmental stage is separation from the family of origin, being their own self and beginning to understand who they are in the context of their peer group.”
Developmentally speaking, teens’ brains are hardwired to resist everything about COVID-19 sheltering in place, from slashed social connections to near-constant interaction with parents to a sudden lack of privacy and autonomy. “Being forced back into the bosom of the family at the time when they developmentally need to separate creates this significant reverse dynamic,” says Moore. “It not only adds to the stress of isolation, but it dampens natural psychological development. In effect, their development is put on hold.”
The resulting strain breeds fear, anxiety and a crippling loss of control for adolescents, notes Moore. As a result, caregivers and parents complain that teens are more anxious, moody, unpredictable and unmotivated.
Honesty and transparency
Supporting adolescents through COVID-19 closures means reaching out with honesty and letting them know that their reactions are normal and okay. “Families are under tremendous stress right now, so it’s not just teens who are suffering,” says Moore. “It’s helpful to open a dialogue with teens and let them know that we can talk about this together. Nobody has been through this before, and we don’t have to experience it alone.”
Expect withdrawal (but keep checking in)
Don’t freak if your teen wants to spend hours holed up in their bedroom — withdrawal from parents is developmentally normal for adolescents, notes Moore. But that doesn’t mean parents and caregivers should abandon a consistent family routine or regular check-ins. Establishing family norms, such as a screen-free family mealtime, a morning walk around the block or a weekly family movie night, helps create the type of nurturing family boundaries that protect against the damaging health effects of social isolation for teens, according to research.
Encourage setting goals
School closures and activity cancellations have left teens without achievements to strive for and the beneficial social feedback that follows, says Moore. Helping teens set manageable personal goals, even if the milestones don’t resonate with parents, helps combat hopelessness and helplessness. Logging 10,000 steps per day, taking on a fundraising challenge or a letter-writing campaign, even tackling a big task like organizing the garage (for pay, if parents can swing it), keeps teens active and focused on the future.
Keep regular social (distancing) dates
Don’t assume your tech-savvy teen has their social bases covered in the age of social distancing. “Online social interactions usually originate from face-to-face connections, and now those face-to-face interactions are gone,” says Moore. Ask your teen whether they’ve been on FaceTime with a friend today, and inquire about friends who seem to have fallen off their radar. And even if teens don’t admit it, they may be worried about grandparents and older relatives. Establishing regular check-ins and social dates via Zoom can help provide reassurance and a sense of normalcy, says Moore.
Now’s not the time to let your teen go nuts with news reports and scroll endlessly through social media feeds. Overconsumption of virus-related reporting can fuel anxiety. Instead, use extra time spent indoors to catch up on movies or shows you wouldn’t otherwise have time to watch with your teen. (This list of teen-friendly shows to binge on is a great place to start.)
Maintain your own social connections
Keeping up your own Zoom coffee dates, text exchanges with friends and over-the-fence chats with neighbors may benefit your teen’s physical and mental health. A new study from Washington University in St. Louis shows that socially isolated parents have an increased risk of poor health for themselves and their teens.
Know what’s normal for your teen
While it’s normal to see some withdrawal from parents and siblings during this unprecedented set of social circumstances, new or unusual behavior in a teen may be a red flag indicating a mental health issue, says Moore. “If you see changes in physiological functioning, like sleep disruption, new phobias, unexplained fears, lack of appetite, oversleeping, concentration problems, excessive preoccupation with death or any signs of non-suicidal self-injury, call your child’s health-care provider.”
As hard as this situation is, coping with the coronavirus ultimately benefits teens, notes Moore. “Teens are learning day by day how to deal with a situation beyond anyone’s control. It’s an unbelievable opportunity to build resilience.”