Navigating the Trials of Being a Teen during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Adria Cooper, 17, shares her experience dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being a teenager isn’t easy by any means. With school, friends, and extracurricular activities, along with added the pressure of increased responsibilities and desire for more independence, teens are battling a load of complex emotions on a day-by-day basis.

Now, top off their struggles with a global pandemic that’s completely transformed their lives, and they’ve got a whole new set of challenges they must navigate ahead of them.

“Being away from school and friends feels very weird,” said Adria Cooper, 17, a junior in high school. “Sometimes I am happy to be on my own and not have to worry about what other people think. I can do what I want, but other days I feel very isolated and lonely.”

As a society as a whole, it’s not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about increased feelings of loss, grief, uncertainty and loneliness.

This unprecedented time is especially taxing on teens who no longer have things to look forward to due to the cancellations of regular activities such as sports seasons, proms and graduations.

The lack of structure that was once so strong in their lives have left many teens like Adria facing emotions that providers at Seattle Children’s are seeing arise as a common theme in their practices.

“With schools closed for the rest of the school year, I’ve noticed that many teens are feeling unsettled,” said Dr. Cora Breuner, an adolescent medicine physician at Seattle Children’s. “They may feel like they’re sail boat without a sail — they’re just floating on what happens to be very rough waters.”

As parents and caregivers try to steer the emotions that their teens are experiencing, it’s important that we listen to them, find understanding in their emotions, and guide them toward healthy habits during this pandemic and other turbulent times.

Hear them out

COVID-19 has magnified mental health and how we manage our emotions. The overwhelming feeling of worry is a common emotion.

“I worry that things won’t go back to normal,” Adria said. “I worry about missing out on my entire senior year of high school and not getting to tour colleges. I worry that I will continue to feel isolated.”

Allowing teens to share their thoughts and worries with you is essential in understanding where they’re coming from.

“Many teens are missing contact from their friends and engaging in regular activities they would otherwise do,” said Dr. Hilary Mead, supervising clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine clinic. “Let them know it is okay to be sad right now and allow whatever feelings are present to be present.”

However, parents and caregivers shouldn’t expect a response of sadness, as there can be a range of emotional responses that a teen may exhibit. They should just be aware of their teens’ behavior and allow them to express their feelings openly and honestly.

“We don’t have all the answers to give them to their questions, since much is still unknown,” Mead said. “Yet, letting them know they are being courageous, brave and honest with themselves on how they’re feeling is what matters.”

However, giving them space to process those feelings is important as well.

“I’ve heard teens say things like ‘this stinks, I’m sick of this, there’s no hope, and I feel so sad,’” Breuner said. “I suggest parents ask their teen first if they want to talk about it, and then let them know you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to talk.”

Structure is key

Making sure your teen keeps to some semblance of a routine is key to managing healthy habits.

“Make sure they go to sleep at the same time every night,” Breuner said. “It’s important they’re not on social media until 4:00 a.m. because they think there’s nothing to do.”

While her wake up and sleep times have changed due to no school, Adria tries to keep consistent throughout the days to develop a new sense of structure.

“I make weekly schedules so that I can stick to a plan for exercise and homework,” she said.

Aside from continuing their school work, there are a variety of healthy ways to build structure into the day.

“For example, have them set an intention to spend time outside like taking the dog out for a walk,” Breuner said. “Help them envision structure by finding something that brings them joy. Guide them from staying away from catastrophic thoughts or thinking ‘it’s the end of the world.’”

Encouraging enjoyment in things that may not have always been possible in a teen’s busy schedule can also be a healthy outlet to keep a sense of stability.

“To cope, I have been doing a lot of art projects like embroidering, painting and sewing,” Adria said. “While I would rather have things be back to normal, it has been nice to pick up hobbies that I don’t usually have time for. I have also been exercising, and while it isn’t my favorite thing, exercise has helped me keep up a schedule which is comforting to me.”

Staying social is also significant for teens seeking normalcy in their day-to-day.

“While I typically tell teens to unplug and stay away from screens, in these circumstances, due to physical distancing, I highly encourage them to connect with friends and family through social networks or via Zoom or FaceTime,” Breuner said.

Like many others her age, Adria has found time to connect with friends using these methods and others.

“I text family members to see how they are doing and just to say ‘hi,’” she said. “I have also found sharing funny memes, social media posts, and TikToks to be helpful in spreading joy, especially with my friends.”

Finding the silver lining and being mindful

Memorable events that most high school students see as a rite of passage may also no longer be in clear view.

“For family members and teens alike there’s often a lot of emotion invested in graduation and other end-of-school events. These events give time to reflect on the journey, the sacrifices, and the accomplishments,” Mead said. “As an alternative to being part of a formal ceremony, perhaps each member of the family can share their fondest memory of their graduating senior across elementary, middle, and high school over a special dinner.”

Being creative, calm and motivating is crucial to support teens making their way through this challenging period.

Breuner recommends writing down “Three Gratitudes” every day to help support a positive reframing process.

“This generation is going to teach us about coping, building new rituals, and making meaning out of grief,” Mead said. “It’s important we be mindful to their situation and assure them that they’re doing their best.”

While it’s normal for emotions to run high, parents and caregivers should continue to watch for any concerning changes in their teens’ behavior.

“You know your kid best,” Breuner said. “You know if they’re just sad due to the circumstances, or if they’re sad because it’s something much more. Be open to asking questions before a crisis occurs.”

If you sense something truly isn’t right, Breuner suggests contacting your teen’s doctor first and schedule a visit either in-person or by telehealth. If it is a crisis situation, go to your local emergency department, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, which is available 24/7, or text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected live with a real crisis-trained counselor.

When you can, offer ways for them to stay positive and look toward better times in the future. Despite a lot of the negative impacts, Adria said thinking about the future has helped her find the good in this experience too.

“When the stay-at-home order lifts, I am most excited to be able to see my friends,” Adria said. “While FaceTime is helpful, it is not the same as being with the people you love. I want to hug my friends and family. I’m looking forward to the simple things that I took for granted before. I think that this experience will make me more appreciative of health, being able to spend time with people, and actually being able to physically go to school.”