It is no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant mental health impact on teenagers. The age group of 13 to 18-year-olds went from attending school, playing sports, socializing with friends, and seeing family regularly to being completely isolated at home with their immediate family. To put it simply, our kids weren’t allowed to be kids.
Physical health aside, teens’ mental health paid a high price to keep them safe at home. Experts say they were already concerned with the poor mental health of this age group, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated mental health challenges for teens. Now, teens and their families are picking up the pieces of their mental well-being as they work to move forward.
As our society and our technology continue to erode students’ mental well-being, let’s discuss how the pandemic affected teen mental health and how parents, caregivers, and family members can help teens find the help and support they need.
What Hardships Did Teens Face During the Pandemic?
The pandemic’s impact on children’s mental and physical health will be studied for years to come. The negative effects of isolation, fear, disruption, and stress are just beginning to emerge, and the impact on this age group is troubling.
Here are a few of the ways the pandemic impacted teens’ mental health.
Emotional & Physical Abuse at Home
New CDC data reveals that more than half of high school students, 55 percent, said they experienced emotional abuse from an adult in their home during the pandemic, and 11 percent of teens said they experienced physical abuse.
Additionally, groups, including LGBTQ youth and teen girls, reported especially high levels of poor mental health during the pandemic. These groups also attempted suicide (and considered attempting suicide) at a higher rate.
When children attend school, physical and emotional abuse is often noticed by teachers, counselors, and other adults that kids spend time with. Without these interactions, abuse is much more difficult to pick up on through a computer screen.
Stress at Home
Home isn’t always a safe place for teen girls and boys. Many experience conflict with their parents and struggle to find their place in the family dynamic. These problems were only worsened by the pandemic, where being stuck at home likely created traumatic stressors for teens, with no outlet from school, sports, or their peers.
Their parents may have lost their jobs, dealt with financial struggles, or experienced the death of a close family member. Nearly 140,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or grandparent to COVID-19. These traumatic events stay with young people long-term and can have a lasting effect on their mental health.
The CDC reported that alcohol and drug abuse also increased substantially in teens staying home from school during the pandemic. Research shows that deaths from overdose doubled from 2019 to 2020 for adolescents. The traumatic stressors of living at home, disruption of school, lack of social interaction, and declining mental health likely contributed to the increase in substance abuse for teens during COVID-19.
Feelings of Isolation, Loneliness, and Hopelessness
In 2021, 44 percent of high school students said they felt sad or hopeless during the past year. Undoubtedly, the pandemic contributed to (or was the driving factor for) these feelings. Without the proper support, these mental health problems went untreated, worsened, and became more severe, often leading to serious mental illness.
Loneliness can often lead to anxiety and teen depression, and high school students went from seeing their peer groups in person every day to limited interaction through a computer screen.
A John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health poll suggests that well over 50% of teens reported that the pandemic and response created changes, problems, and stress in their lives.
Lack of Support and Resources
Isolation at home was extremely challenging for this age group. For many teens, going to school was an escape from stress at home, a chance to create their own path and discover their passions. They also had interactions with adults other than their parents. School closures affected the availability and consistency of the support that teens relied on.
Many young people with existing emotional health issues before the pandemic received mental health assistance at school from teachers, school counselors, coaches, school health centers, and other supportive adults. Without this consistency and proper support to lean on during the pandemic, many teens struggled with isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other issues.
Increased Social Media Usage
Teens and nearly every age group increased their social media use during the pandemic. Social media gives everyone a way to stay in touch with their friends, family members, and other important people in their lives.
For teens who were missing social interaction with their peers, social media kept them in touch and made up for the lack of school connectedness they experienced during this time period.
Increased social media use did not come without issues. Teens who were missing usual social outlets spent a detrimental amount of time on social media and subjected themselves to bullying, sleep disruption, unrealistic views of reality, peer pressure, and anxiety.
A 2016 study and other research show that greater social media use in teens’ lives was linked to worse sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
How Can Parents Help Teens Cope?
Just because teens’ lives have essentially returned to pre-pandemic “normal” routines, we would be foolish to look away from all the ways the pandemic negatively affected this age group’s mental health.
With the untreated mental health issues caused (or worsened) by the COVID-19 pandemic, a return to normal routines, in-person schooling, and socializing may also present new problems for your teen. The renewed challenges of attending school while struggling with mental health issues can create a spiraling effect on teens’ stress and anxiety.
Parents who have noticed significant changes in their children may feel unsure how they can help. Parents can use a few strategies to help their teens cope and get them back on track.
Encourage your children (of all ages) to be open and speak honestly about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through. Monitor your children’s behavior and emotional state if you feel like something may be wrong. Pay attention to any unusual emotions like irritability, crying, aggressive behavior, and isolation.
Other signs your teen may be struggling:
- Behavioral changes, like social withdrawal
- Loss of interest in previous activities they enjoyed
- Sleep disruptions or insomnia
- Changes in weight, appetite, or eating patterns
- Concentration or memory problems
- Changes in appearance
- Changes in academic performance
- Signs or indicators of self-harm
In teens, mental health problems can lead to other health and behavioral risks over time. This can include an increased risk of drug use, violence, and high-risk sexual behaviors.
Fortunately, mental health services can help young people who experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact your child’s pediatrician or mental health provider for additional support if you need it.
How to Support Your Teen Post-COVID-19 Pandemic
Untreated mental health struggles can have potentially devastating consequences, especially for this vulnerable age group. Here are a few ways you can support your child and
- Validate their feelings and encourage open conversations
- Encourage social interactions with their peers if you feel like they are withdrawing
- Encourage habits like consistent sleep, exercise, and healthy eating
- Contact a doctor for mental health assistance if they are struggling
More parents are seeking professional help for their teens as concern grows about the lasting impact of the isolation and disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic. Something as simple as having a peer support group to
Get Mental Health Support For Your Teen at Clear Recovery Center’s Teen Program.
If you have safety concerns about your teenager’s mental health in the post-COVID-19 climate, reach out to a mental health professional as soon as possible.
Treatment for these kinds of issues really depends on the individual teen as there is no “one-size-fits-all” treatment. To address poor social skills, our clinicians at Clear Recovery Center focus on structure around a peer group paired with therapy, and we have noticed some incredible results with our teens.
Our mental health experts are trained to help young adults overcome the long-lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and can provide them with tools and resources to persevere and improve their quality of life. Contact us today for more information.