Guest Column: Help teens in hard times

BY LEAH KATZ, Ph.D.

As a clinical psychologist with a specialty in working with teenagers, I can tell you many of today’s teens are struggling with their mental health. 
Over the last several months, I have witnessed an increase in anxiety and depression. Much of the increase is related to the side effects of living through a pandemic. While adults have the core, predictable components of their life to rely on – family responsibilities, jobs and their independence – many teens have had key elements of their life ripped away. 
Teen life revolves around going to school, extracurriculars and spending time with friends. None of those are accessible now in the ways they had been. Many teenagers are left with huge pockets of unfilled time and a sense of self that is floundering. They are struggling. 
Socially isolated and disengaged from the things that give them purpose (academics, acting, sports…), many teens are turning to the little that is at their fingertips: video games and their phones. In moderation, those can be beneficial to well-being. However, in excess, both are destructive to mental health. 
Which brings me to sleep schedules. Many teens have radically thrown-off sleep schedules. Several are staying up most of the night and sleeping during the day. I have woken up many a teenager when I called them for their morning session – and it is always the same story: “Sorry, I was up until 4 am playing video games.” 
When sleep is thrown off, so are their eating habits. Snacking through the night and not eating in the day is a recipe for not feeling well physical or emotionally. 
Now that virtual school hasstarted, hopefully these teens are getting back on a schedule. While the restart of school has been helpful, it doesn’t provide the same social opportunities and accountability as going into a brick and mortar school.
I have also witnessed tremendous resilience in the teens I work with. Some of those who are having a hard time also display toughness. The two are not mutually exclusive. A teen can have moments of hardiness and creativity, mixed with days where they are tearful, worried, lost and angry. These feelings of resilience interfaced with feelings of hopelessness create a confusing emotional landscape for many teenagers.

The following tips can help you be there for your teen:
Check in on them. Many parents are so overwhelmed they fall into the perception that no news is good news. No news might indicate a teen who is withdrawn and depressed because of this pandemic. Check in with them, but don’t push it. This may further distance your teen. Just a little comment can do wonders to let your teen know you are there and notice them.
Listen to them. When your teen comes to you upset, don’t jump right in with perspective and advice. This may only silence your teen. Often teens just want to be heard. Just “being” with your teen’s sadness and loss is especially important in a time when there are few solutions. Not only will it build your bond, it also models for them the very important skill of allowing ourselves to notice and feel our feelings. For example, if your teen tells you how frustrated they are about not being able to attend football games, a validating response – “I really hear your disappointment; it’s hard to feel that way and deal with all the loss right now” –  can go a long way. A fix-it model – “But you know there are still other things going on! And you still have two more years left to high school, so you’ll have next year” – is less helpful.
Ask if your teen would like perspective, coaching or advice. Still, you are their parent and have more perspective and wisdom because of your age, experience and objectivity. So, after you have listened to your child, maybe later in the day or the next, ask them if they’d like some perspective. The key word here is ask. “I was thinking about what we were talking about yesterday, may I offer you some thoughts I had on it?” will likely make your teen more receptive than if you just tell them what you think.
Encourage socialization. Outdoor picnics, walks, something that feels safe and is within guidelines. These kids need their friends in real life (not only virtually).
Brainstorm with them about a project they can do. A client told me a friend’s parents got him an old fishing boat so he can tinker with it and fix it. Not everyone has the space or money for a fishing boat, but a creative project to work on can be very helpful. I’ve seen teens sew and create Etsy shops where they sell dog leashes they have made. Having a creative outlet can both build mastery and create purpose – two big components of mental well-being. 
Limit screen time. I know everyone knows this, but it’s really important. You will probably get pushback, but after the adjustment period, I hope you will find a happier, more wholesome teen. When they free up time by putting down their phones, there is space for more fulfilling activities.
Encourage exercise or exercise together. Things I have heard from clients that have been nice: family walks, bike rides or weight lifting. Find whatever works for your teen and your family. Moving our bodies is a precursor to mental health. 

Leah Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist practicing in Portland. She specializes in working with teenagers and adults with anxiety and depression. Leah is a member of Congregation Kesser Israel and a member of the Wexner 2020 Portland cohort. She is also a blogger for Psychology Today.com. 

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These tips work for adults of any age honestly. :D Thank you!