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See Teens from a Mental Health Standpoint, and Create a Safe Space

This pandemic is hard for everyone, especially teens. They are mourning the rituals of going to class, socializing with friends, social groups, sports, graduations and more. While they have access to social media and virtual apps to hang with their friends, they miss seeing them in person.

Developmentally, the adolescent brain is still growing, and hormonal changes that come with puberty combined with social dynamics make teens more accustomed to social groups and peers.

Adolescence is also known as the “storm and stress” period, coined by G. Stanly Hall, a renowned licensed psychologist. Hall utilized this term due to the inevitable turmoil that takes place from childhood to adulthood. During this period, there are conflicts with parents or authoritative figures as they seek interdependence and seek social connections, hormonal changes that lead to mood disruptions and risky behavior stemming from the neurological desire for stimulation and emotional immaturity. Depending on their age and development, some may have a difficult time understanding what this national crisis is and how it impacts their world. A recent study revealed teens and college students are anxious, frustrated, upset, disconnected and overall concerned about their mental health. Thus, it is imperative that parents, including extended family and friends are attuned to help teens cope with stress and avoid a mental health collapse.

What can parents do?

COVID-19 brings new fears for young people that may already feel unnoticed. They are wading through complicated emotions and uncharted territories. Suddenly their safety and security are being threatened, and they’re trying to navigate a lot with limited tools. Although fear and anxiety are normal reactions to the unknown, parents should be concerned if fear interrupts their sleep, emotions, relationships and everyday routines. One of the most helpful things to remember is to validate their experiences and feelings. For example, “It makes sense you’re afraid or worried; people are getting sick. “We are doing everything we can to remain safe and healthy”. Acknowledge the loss and avoid minimizing statements such as “It’s not that bad, because you can virtually see your friends”. Keep in mind that teens and young adults are grieving the loss of traditional milestones. So, trivializing their emotions only exacerbates feelings of sadness. Also, cultivate a safe warm space for them to express their thoughts and feelings. For example, prepare some of their favorite foods that include healthy options for this dialogue. Or casual check-ins while doing the laundry, midday or at bedtime. Listen without judgment. What may not be a big deal for parents, does not mean the same for teens.

Pay Attention; With Extra Consideration for Behavioral Changes

On that same page, this global disruption is a trauma. Traumatic events are usually overwhelming, distressing, frightening experiences out of our control that cause us to feel that our lives are in danger. Trauma impacts our thoughts, cognitions and behavior, and can compromise your capacity for pleasure, trust, self-control and engagement.  Everyone responds differently to trauma. When they’re not behaving or acting in their usual way; provide a little freedom; allow them time to act and try to understand them. Don’t focus so much on the change in the behavior, but extra consideration on why they’re acting this way. It is very likely that teens are not able to communicate their feelings.

Red Flags

However, there are some behavioral signs that indicate possible teen substance abuse such as frequently asking for money, stealing, or lying. Also, self-harm is very popular, and teens are cutting themselves to reduce anger or feel better, boredom or a sense of control. So, talk to your teens about self-harm and pay attention if they’re hanging with friends or in online groups that engage in self harm behavior. Additionally, teens already struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or are predisposed to trauma are at greater risk for developing a mental illness. Statements that may signal they’re feeling hopeless may sound like “things will never get better”, “what do I have to look forward to”. Thus, asked emotion-based questions such as “how can I help you today”, and provide opportunities for connection and structure.  

Teen Dating Violence

Adolescents between ages 11-24 are at the highest risk for experiencing teen dating violence. Approximately 1 in 11 females and 1 in 15 male students have experienced physical violence.  Teen dating violence is a pattern of controlling behavior in which a partner uses violence against another partner. It can be physical violence, psychological distress, sexual violence, and stalking. Also, it can happen electronically, such as repeated texting and posting nude pictures of someone without consent. One reason teens are at risk is that they don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like. Also, they don’t have the tools to navigate conversations around consent. Unhealthy relationships can start early, and can last a lifetime. Why, because violence in adolescent relationships set the stage for problems in future relationships, including domestic violence, sexual violence and victimization.

Therefore, it is critical for parents to model healthy respectful relationships and demonstrate gender equality. Promote healthy manhood with young boys. In other words, encourage boys to express their feelings; remind them that expressing emotions such as tears is healthy versus suppressing them or saying “boys don’t cry or man up”. Ask questions about their relationships such as “does he/she take your cell phone without permission? Or how do you define a relationship?

Cultural Considerations

While, COVID-19 has disrupted communities and countries across the world, for Black communities, public health crises always hit harder. There are alarming health and educational disparities along racial and socioeconomic lines, and COVID-19 exacerbates this. Also, the number of Black people dying from COVID are higher than other ethnicities. To add to that, discrimination, witnessing racial violence and repeated killings of Black people by the police is detrimental to their psychological well-being. Sadly, racial trauma and the impact of COVID are additional stressors for Black teens. To mitigate the effects, offer validation, affirmation, acknowledgement and connect with your community. Hold space for each other, love, support, care. And also allow for tears, which can be an outlet to simply feel what you feel.

Be optimistic

Take a deep breath and focus on the positive aspects of opportunities to increase family bonding. While it can be stressful and tense; have a family reset, as often as you need them to center yourselves and focus on quality time. Be mindful of how you show up; are you frustrated or angry; or calm, confident and reassuring. Remember, teens model what they see and respond to the environment they are surrounded by. So try to find some balance, fun and peace in the midst of uncertainty.

Shanita Brown, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, ACS is a speaker, counselor educator and a consultant. Stay connected with her and her mental health initiatives at www.drshanitabrown.com.

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