The Mental Health Check-In Teens Need After A Year In Quarantine

Well, it’s been a year. For parents and teens alike, the last 12 months of navigating the global pandemic have been some of the most anxiety-inducing, disruptive and thoroughly upsetting times in our lives. It’s well-documented that morale and overall mental health have taken a hit across demographics, but it has undeniably taken a unique toll on teens — a group that is already vulnerable in the mental health department under the best circumstances.

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While there’s still a lot for mental health professionals, providers and researchers to fully understand about what the coronavirus pandemic (and the subsequent disruption of regular schedules, increase in screen time and grief that’s come with it) has done to everyone’s brains, there’s early numbers showing an uptick in teens reporting mental health issues over the last year. A recent poll from  the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at Michigan Medicine found that nearly half of its respondents reported their teens showed signs of new or worsening mental health conditions in the last year. SheKnows caught up with Dr. Cara Natterson, pediatrician, author and cofounder of OOMLA (who we talked teen mental health with at the start of the pandemic) and our panel of “QuaranTeens” for an honest look at how they’re faring after one year of pandemic living and some real-talk advice for how to support the teens in our lives during this time.

“The rate of certain mental health issues — depression, anxiety — are high and they risen dramatically through the pandemic,” Natterson says. “The data is there to document that very clearly. We do not yet know what the longterm impact of these experiences will be. Although we do know that experiencing, a loss — especially of a parent or a primary caretaker— is associated in many cases with other mental health issues. Then there’s a socialization piece: About a quarter of kids have been fully remote and half of all kids have done some hybrid combination. So you’re looking at a quarter of all kids in this country have had really limited social interactions with other kids. 75 percent of all kids have had less than their usual physical contact with other kids.”

And despite progress with vaccines, the sheer amount of time that has passed since the virus began community-spread in the United States has left a considerable impact. As Jack, one of the teens interviewed in the video says “It is permanent now and it felt temporary in March.”

Dr. Natterson notes that because different households, locations and socioeconomic backgrounds yield vastly different pandemic-time experiences, there’s no one-size-fits-all state of teen mental health right now— but there’s certainly a variety of different feelings around “opening-up” happening in different states ranging from the disruption never fully registering, an excitement and a sense of urgency or a deep unease and anxiety with returning back to something resembling “normal.”

“Even though there are some unifying themes, the experience of living in a pandemic and the experience of the one year anniversary is really singular for each kid,” Natterson says. “I’m seeing some kids who have been part of an active social world through all of this; they have figured out how to continue social in-person connection through all of this in some sort of limited way. And for them, this moment, while it’s nice to open up and be much more social, it doesn’t feel as revelatory. And then I see kids who have been locked down for the whole time, and who really followed those guidelines. For them, what is happening now, which feels like an opening up, is enormous in very positive ways. But then I’m also seeing some kids who have been following the the guidelines very closely and the thought of opening up is very anxiety provoking: They got used to limited social circles, they got used to really restricting their life because they felt that they were playing is the important role in saving the lives of others, which I think they were. But it’s very hard for them to imagine shifting gears now, especially because it feels like it’s on a dime. Everything is shifting very quickly — and the numbers don’t necessarily reflect the way people feel.”

How can you check-in with your teen right now?

With all the shifting changes, it can be a challenge for parents to keep up with what the right things to do or say even are at this point. After all, the events of the last year are challenging for even the most emotionally experienced adults to manage. So for young people to lose a whole year of their lives all while witnessing the rampant misinformation, the countless deaths on top of navigating their remote school and social lives? Even for the most resilient kid, it’s a lot.

But sometimes the immediate instincts when you’re confronted with that kind of emotional load may not be the wisest move. While open communication and empathy are always incredibly important when talking with young adults, Natterson cited her own conversation with her own teens for why the seemingly empathetic response of “I know” or “I understand” might hit a teenager the wrong way after a year in lockdown.

“Sort of halfway into all this, they said the thing that drives them crazy is when an adult tells them ‘I know, I understand,’” Natterson says. “They said it drove them crazy before pandemic because, you know, it sort of makes them feel their feelings are not unique. But once the pandemic started, they really got annoyed by that sentence because ‘can you understand when you had a normal teenage life and had everything put on hold?’ And so they taught me the importance of empathizing and saying, ‘you know, wow, that’s a lot that you’re sharing with me, that that’s a big concept I wanna hear more.’ “They taught me to steer away from the phrase ‘I know’ or I understand when it came to Pandemic because I didn’t know and I didn’t understand.”

She says that from avoiding that phrase, the quality of the conversations and the range of emotions they were able to cover and the connections they were able to make were so much stronger by nature of meeting them where they were, validating their feelings and holding space for them. By now the phrase “unprecedented times” is a cliché unto itself, but especially for teens who truly have no precedent for this experience.

“So my best advice to parents is, as you engage with your kids, whether it’s toward the end of this whole pandemic period or in normal life, which will hopefully return soon, that’s a phrase to steer clear of — and instead say ‘I’m listening’ or ‘I’m interested.’”

Before you go, check out some of our favorite mental health apps you can download right now:

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