Home Mental Health & Well-Being How to Support Teens in These Times of Trouble

How to Support Teens in These Times of Trouble

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Almost everyone will have a different experience of these days of social distancing, isolation, or lockdown. Many essential workers are still working in their place of work, others may be working from home trying to juggle work and family responsibilities. Others maybe have lost jobs or income and almost all of us are missing out on physical contact with friends and relatives, having to find new ways to maintain those vital connections.

But this time may be especially tough for our teens. The teenage years are all about preparing for adulthood, physically, mentally, and relationally. It is when most young people want to spend decreasing amounts of time with family and increasing amounts of time with peers and friends. They form new social referencing points as peer group becomes more important, which can be a cause of concern for many parents.

It is also a time when supporting their mental health is crucial as one in seven 11–16-year-olds have a diagnosable mental health disorder and half of all mental health problems are established by the age of 14.

Quite apart from the current crisis, in an average class of 30 students aged 15:

  • 10 are likely to have witnessed their parents separate
  • 7 are likely to have been bullied
  • 6 may be self-harming
  • 1 could have experienced the death of a parent

And now we have COVID-19. So almost all are experiencing some kind of loss – loss of school and the daily contact with peers, loss of any physical contact with friends, loss of exams and the purpose of their study, the likely loss of shirt signing, end of term trips, and prom. They may be worried about being ill themselves, losing friends or relatives, how their parents will cope financially, or their parent’s relationship, and what the world post-COVID-19 will be like.

For those who are vulnerable: children in care, in need, on child protection plans, post-care, experiencing poverty, overcrowding, or with special educational needs and disabilities, the problems are likely to be even worse. 

So, what can adults do to support young folk at a time of great anxiety and isolation?

For the group defined as vulnerable, schools and social care are taking the lead with regular check-ins, but the following tips may help any parent or carer who finds themselves managing the wide variety of emotions that might be displayed by teens at the moment.

Recognise that anxiety can show itself in different ways

Some may be tearful, withdrawn, clingy or attention-seeking, others may be snappy, argumentative, or aggressive. Anxiety can also show itself in physical symptoms, ill-defined aches, tiredness, change in eating and sleeping patterns.

Try to respond to the emotion, not the behaviour

This can be a challenge when as adults we may be coping with our own emotions. Snapping back at an already irritable and anxious teen is not likely to be helpful. Remember they aren’t adult yet; hormones mean they experience a wide range of emotions and there are a lot of reasons for them to feel upset right now. It is time to cut them some slack, not pile on the pressure. 

Give them time and opportunity to talk, but also be aware they may not want to

Keep offering, but if they want to be alone in their room that might be just what they need. It can be helpful to talk about the things they might be feeling. Acknowledging, for example, that it must be tough for them not seeing friends, being unsure about college or progression, or wishing they’d worked harder for mock exams.

Be aware of your own emotions and role model how you manage them

They need you to be calm, but you are human and, rather than pretending everything is okay, it can be more useful, for example, to explain what you do to calm yourself when you feel anxious or afraid. Reminding them that any ‘feeling’ is OK.

Distraction, routines and positivity can all play an important part in how we get through these challenging times, but we also need to allow our teens time to experience the abrupt ‘ending’ of the normality that was their life and offer them support, so they can heal and move forward. 

Sheila Mulvenney is the director of Attuned Education. She has recently published a book: Overcoming Barriers to Learning


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