Knowing that the middle school and high school years are often difficult transitions socially and emotionally for many kids, there are also many shifts and red flags I often talk about that may help parents be more aware of – and way before the Covid-19 virus even happened.
During the teenage years, it’s only natural to change and grow, and as parents, we need to be reminded of the surging hormones that cause dramatic social, emotional and behavior changes - some teens even regress. Despite all the various shifts that take place during adolescence, tweens and teens need a steady and consistent support system - to not only help them from experiencing feelings of isolation, but to feel heard and understood. The issues I see with adolescents are the same ones that have been in the forefront for years and not just during this Coronavirus pandemic.
The issues are two-fold:
First and foremost, not all children and teens respond to stress the same way. Some may be wired to handle things better than others. There’s introverts and extroverts. So, the introverted kids may be feeling okay during this time – they may be saying, “this is great, I don’t have to feel pressured to be seen or to act a certain way for the sake of fitting in. I can be myself in the comfort of my own home now without being judged.” Some introverts may be in what I call “emotional hide-out from their families now. They tend to stay in their rooms for extended periods of time and that can lead to a complete disconnect. The extroverts on the other hand are feeling like social distancing is like being in prison – like it’s a no-way-out zone, losing their sense of socialization feels like being cut off from society completely - no social gatherings, parties, with freedom and independence being shut down, driving and hanging out with friends has come to a sudden stop. And, whether or not these teens are introverts or extraverts, they’re all being deprived of graduations, proms, sports tournaments, studying abroad, or other long-planned events. So, depending on the person, feeling isolated can sometimes lead to anxiety and depression.
Second, if we take a look at those teens who felt isolated even before this whole Covid-19 crisis, some teens are being bullied and abused in their own homes, so not feeling safe is merely exacerbating the issues. Those kids who didn’t reach out before or who were feeling incapable of expressing or showing emotions are now showing even deeper signs of depression and anxiety. As we know, some kids are experts at hiding their emotions or faking positive feelings.
Lastly, there’s a huge difference between teens feeling sad and disappointed versus being clinically depressed. As parents and educators, we need to be hypervigilant and hyperaware of those differences. As I mentioned earlier, the extroverted teenagers can fill some of their void now by doing video and Facetime calls and connecting with peers. The introverted teens need more help and attention. When I’m on a virtual meetup with students in class, I pay attention to students who don’t “show up” or who don’t respond to my questions, emails or comments. When parents and teachers see that academic and social decline getting worse, or perhaps their kids are self-criticizing more and the negative self-statements are intensifying, these are the red flags and signs to pay close attention to.
A helpful, simple solution: Make sure your teenager knows you’re “present.” Just because you’re home 24/7 doesn’t mean you’re emotionally present. Some parents are so caught up in their own world and feelings (anxiety, sadness, depression, or negativity), that they don’t notice or validate their own child’s experiences. And, if they do, it’s more like preaching. Teens don’t always want you to go on and on about these unfortunate circumstances. They want to feel heard and understood. Try to engage more and check-in (especially after long periods of isolation in their rooms, or even after arguments and disagreements). If you’re having a hard time now balancing your own emotions as a parent, there’s a plethora of mental health resources. You’re not alone. Lastly, getting help from a mental health professional is way better than you or your kids hiding in a dark place.