En español | Right now I have a perfectly imperfect 19-year-old. Two or three years ago, though, I'd often think: Only one of us is going to make it through this alive. His behavior was maddeningly typical of kids ages 14 to 17: the mood swings, the defiance, the impulsivity that makes them do stupid stuff, the paralysis that keeps them from doing what they're supposed to. If you've got a kid that age, you know what I'm talking about. And it won't be news to you that 2020 didn't help. Last year was everyone's annus horribilis, but many psychologists believe adolescents were hit hardest.
"Developmentally, this age group is working on autonomy, and social isolation has been a struggle,” notes Laine Young-Walker, M.D., director of the child psychiatry department at University of Missouri Health Care. Mid-teens are supposed to spend time with their peers; instead, they were home with their stressed-out parents and siblings. Online learning was a huge challenge, and students planning for college had to forgo campus visits. “This group, like no other, has had to be flexible and adapt to change,” Young-Walker says.
For Adam Price, a psychologist and author of He's Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself, part of the challenge is perspective. “As terrible as the year was for adults, age allows us to take the long view,” he says. “In our lives, this was a blip.” Not so for teens: “The loss of friendships, relationships, milestones like graduation and proms and first jobs — for many, that was all gone."
Consequently, the usual dramas of mid-adolescence have been magnified. Anxiety, depression and that particularly painful scourge — comparing yourself to your peers and coming up short — have been front and center for many teens. Now that we are emerging from the morass, how can parents help teens get back on track? Experts provide some answers.
“For every teenager who has symptoms of depression, there are eight to 10 who have symptoms of anxiety,” says Rahul Saxena, M.D., a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent medicine in New York City and Toronto. Often, anxiety can even cause depressive symptoms. Check yourself: Are your expectations for grades in line with the year we've all had? Listen to your kids’ concerns and seek guidance from a mental health professional if needed. But be careful not to pathologize normal human experience. “It's a parent's job to talk to them about normal angst and difficulties,” Price says.
On Instagram, everyone's family is happy, everybody's hair is shiny. Even boys, therapists say, are more obsessed with their bodies than ever before. “Abs are to teen guys what weight and a good figure are to teen girls,” Price says. FOMO — fear of missing out — is a recipe for a bad self-image. A parent can help by pointing out how people carefully curate their online worlds to present an idealized version of reality.
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Argue for breaks
It's a hard sell, but talk with your kid about taking some time away from social media. “You cannot control what kids of this age do on their screens. But if your kid seems to be unhappy and spending more and more time online, talk to them,” Saxena says. It shouldn't be about quitting social media altogether — a nonstarter — “but about seeing how they feel when they take a day off,” he advises. Ask your child: What makes you feel good about yourself? What makes you feel bad about yourself? “Especially after this year, we're all relearning a little bit about healthy human connection,” Saxena adds.