3 Ways To Help Your Teen Cope with the Pandemic
By Julyanna Trickey
This pandemic sucks, we all know it.
But how has it affected our teenagers and their mental health? How well are they coping with not seeing friends regularly, not playing sports and not getting to just live a normal teenage life? Everyone is feeling the stress of this pandemic but it has affected our teens immensely.
In a recent survey by the Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health and the CHEO Research Institute of 1,341 young kids, 61 per cent of teenagers have reported a worsening of their mental health since Covid-19 started. We chat with Dr. Mario Cappelli, a clinical psychologist with 25 years’ experience specializing in youth mental health, about our teenagers and how they are coping through Covid-19.
This pandemic is hard on everyone but especially for teenagers. How has this pandemic affected teenager mental health overall?
Overall, we’ve seen a decrease in the general mental health of teens. I think there is lots of well-documented evidence that Canadian, American and international teenagers are experiencing increases in anxiety, mood problems like sadness and withdrawal, and more recently we are starting to see an increase in more serious illnesses like some of the major eating disorders. I think that, without a doubt, there has been a substantial impact on mental health. But I don’t want to say all kids are equally affected because that isn’t true. And despite the impact on mental health, a lot of kids are able to do a lot of the things they normally do. This is an important statement because it tells us that there is a lot of resiliency amongst our young people. They have still managed to get through the challenges they have had to face and have managed to cope.
But there are levels to it. There have been differential effects on young people who had a prior mental illness versus those who were healthy before, so you start to see some differences.
Are teenagers who haven’t experienced anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems at risk now?
In our own research, we have found that kids with no prior history of mental health concerns have reported increased stress, increased worry about the future, and an overall negative effect on their mental health because of the pandemic. But what they wanted for support wasn’t necessarily seeing a therapist or seeing a psychologist, it just depended on their level of need. So, for a lot of kids, they just wanted to be sent some information on some coping strategies they could use and if there were any good websites or apps out there to help them manage their own mental health. It was really interesting because what we saw was that the kids with more serious mental illnesses prior to and during the pandemic were still saying “I need that level of care that is one-to-one” whereas the kids who were saying “I have some mental health concerns and I’m managing but would still like some support” were more likely to request help by way of digital or informational means rather than through therapy.
Can you give three coping tips for teens to use that can help them manage their mental health?
So, of course, it depends on what the mental health issue is, but a lot of kids have reported an increase in anxiety throughout this pandemic as it has created a tremendous amount of uncertainty in their lives.
- Focus on the things you have control over. You have control over your schoolwork. You may not know if we are going into another lockdown or if class will be virtual or in-person but you can always control the amount of time you spend on your schoolwork. You can control how long you work on it and how long you prepare. Focus on that. You can still maintain the relationships you have with your friends. We have lots of really good technology in place that allows you to stay connected. You can still go outside and go for walks with your friends and do other activities. So do the things that are safe but do the things you have control over.
- Change your mindset. Another thing I like to encourage kids to do when they are feeling really anxious and when they start only focusing on the things that have gone wrong in a day is to reflect back and think also about what has gone okay and what has gone well. Any experience in your day isn’t always just good or bad so it’s getting away from that categorized things are great or things are awful way of thinking. Instead, think of your experiences in your day as being lots of different things. Focus on the things that are neutral and positive too.
- Talk about it. Encourage our young people to talk about how they are feeling with each other. Ultimately they are their strongest supporters and if they are feeling a little stressed, talking it out with their friends, teachers, and family because oftentimes that’s enough. It’s getting it out of your head by voicing it and externalizing it. I know a lot of our young people socialize through Snapchat and texting but those platforms don’t capture the non-verbal, more intimate pieces of friendship. So I always encourage them to go beyond just texting and Snapchatting. If you can FaceTime your friends, then FaceTime. Talk to them in person. Make it more real. Do things together.
What advice would you give teenagers who are more introverted where keeping up friendships is a bit harder, especially during the pandemic?
This is a really good question because we sometimes forget that for some kids who are more introverted it’s not about doing a ton of things with friends. Often it’s about reminding them to stay connected with the one or two friends they do have because they’ll also split from there. And there are differences between males and females, and I know I am using sex here not gender but, if you think about it, a bunch of guys hanging out together and playing a video game can be really important to them. It’s their social connection. But that’s going to differ depending on what your interests are and on your gender. And that’s okay! The idea is always A) having a connection and B) having a balance. So play your video games but talk to your friends too and go out and do something with them once in a while.
Has anything surprised you about teenager mental health through this pandemic?
It was really hard during the winter. It was awful in January when we went through our provincial lockdown. It was a terrible time as it was the middle of winter and for young people, where do they go to hang out? For most, it was hanging out with their friends outside, but in the winter when it’s freezing, that was basically impossible. So we took away their one safe place and I think it was tremendously difficult for young people in that lockdown, even more difficult than the first one last spring. It felt like they had something and then they lost it, they had it, and then they lost it again. And it really hurt. I also think we could have done a much better job to keep kids active and keep them in activities they normally would do. And when they used to be figure-skating, playing hockey, playing volleyball or whatever else with their friends and teammates before we took that away from them, are you really surprised they are gaming more, or on social media more, or have binge-watched Friends 10 times? The most important thing to a teenager is usually their friends and without their normal connections, it’s been hard for them. And a lot of kids are just throwing up their hands and asking “well, what do we do now?” So I saw a lot more anger and frustration from teenagers this time around. A lot of them were even complaining about politicians, people not listening to doctors, asking where their vaccine is, and whether anyone even knows what they are doing. Just really angry! So it was a real shift. It was really surprising for me to see the level of anger that kids were telling me compared to the first wave. Now that we are seeing nicer weather and kids aren’t trapped inside, we are seeing a little bit more hope.
What do you think has been the biggest challenge for parents of teens during this time?
I think the challenge parents are facing is the impact of Covid-19 on even the strongest and most resilient of kids. And sometimes young kids, and really just all of us in general, communicate in ways that aren’t always obvious. So we act in a bad mood, or we’re grumpy, or short with people. For parents, it’s the ability to step back and say “whoa, hang on a second” my child isn’t normally like this, so what’s going on? I wonder if something has happened? Are they bothered with things going on right now? The real challenge for parents this past year is for them to step back, not react as quickly and try to understand what the meaning really is behind their emotions and behaviours. As a parent, you get frustrated and want to react back to the bad moods and the back-talk from your kids but really, the challenge is stepping back and asking yourself why they are acting this way, what’s really going on here?
What should parents watch out for if they think their teen is experiencing severe anxiety or depression?
Any time you see changes in your child’s normal behaviour first of all. No one knows your child better than you do. And when you see changes in your child’s typical behaviour should be a red flag. So if you start seeing:
- withdrawing from their friends
- withdrawing from their family
- increased irritability
- elusive behaviour
- a restricted diet or overeating
- becoming more argumentative or tearier
Hopefully, you can then start a conversation by saying, “I’m not sure what’s been going on, but I’ve noticed you have been acting this particular way, is there something you want to talk about?” And then just listen. And realize that even though you’ve asked the question, your teen is most likely not going to tell you right away but that’s not the point. The point is that you want to let them know that you’re there for them. As a broad brush, most kids are going to connect with their parents. They will.
For kids who really need to talk to someone about their anxiety or depression but find wait lines for mental health services too long, where can they go to get help?
There are a couple of ways for sure. First of all, a lot of the community-based mental health and addiction agencies have done an incredible job of changing some of their services so kids can access them more quickly. The movement from in-person to virtual was done at light speed. I think those agencies have worked really hard. I think the other thing too is that there has been a recognized need for more virtual walk-in clinics to access services. And sometimes all kids need is one or two visits. You see that with the increased use of the Kids Help Line, some just need that conversation and that can be all it takes sometimes. There was a real push for low-barrier, easy entry, short visits and I think that has been done well. There has also been a huge increase of online services available for young people like Bounce Back, and Begin, and Wellness Together Canada. These programs are user-friendly with validated treatments. There’s also something to be said for approaching our closer safety-net supporters like our teachers, our guidance counsellors, and our family doctors. They are all there to help you so reach out to them as well.
To learn more about the survey conducted by CYMH and CHEO, visit cymh.ca/covid19