How has the pandemic affected teens’ anxiety?

How has the pandemic affected teens’ anxiety?

Behavioral health needs have skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic. In my role as a licensed clinical professional counselor, I provide therapeutic support for 13-18 year olds. Many of my patients struggle with anxiety, which has often been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Teens who were already experiencing anxiety prior to 2020 are reporting heightened or worsened symptoms, and many of those who were able to manage stressors are now struggling.

While anxiety triggers look different for everyone, common culprits in relation to the pandemic include changes in routine, cancelled events, fluctuating school environments and isolation creating agoraphobia (fear of certain situations that may be difficult to get out of).

Returning to in-person schooling, being around peers who may feel more distant now and shuffling through crowded hallways can be unnerving. One tactic we use in sessions for teens who complain about sensory overload is grounding exercises like deep breathing. These help to decrease the sense of feeling overwhelmed and can serve as great tools for managing and even alleviating anxiety. One method of deep breathing is known as Color Breathing, and it works well for the whole family. In short, it involves mentally picturing/meditating on a color that represents how you want to feel and the stressors you want to let go of in your life.

Other anxiety triggers I’m noticing in my patients are school performance and social media. Increased academic pressures around college admission have been a source of growing concern. In these situations, we talk through managing stress related to deadlines, expectations and disappointments.

Depending on what social media accounts a teen follows, they may be faced with a prevailing message that they aren’t good enough or aren’t attractive due to some arbitrary standard. Parents – I encourage you to wear the hat of curiosity and talk with your teens to find out what they’re absorbing throughout the day.

Transparency goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to engage in conversation with your teens. We’re all stressed, so let’s talk about it. Allow your teens to see you as human by being vulnerable and sharing challenges and how you’ve overcome them. Conversations with your child should be a judgement-free zone. If done right, this could be the start of those ‘awkward’ conversations our teens dread that build the foundation for improved communication.

Another key to success – keep up with your child’s annual wellness appointments. These visits can help confirm parental concerns or bring attention to behavioral health issues by screening for anxious and/or depressive symptoms and obtaining appropriate referrals.

Teens have been expected to bounce back amid a global mental health crisis. And while overall, children are resilient, they don’t inherently have the answers and ability to ‘snap out of it.’ They need guidance and tools to help menage negative self talk, doubt and uncertainty.

All of our lives have been turned upside down. Suddenly, we’re expected to return to ‘normal’ in the midst of social injustices and political unrest. If we’re being honest, we’ve all experienced difficulties readjusting and making sense of everything, so my ask is this – show our teens some grace. We’re all just trying to figure it out.

Christian Fears is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Advocate Children’s Hospital.

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Christian Fears

Christian Fears is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Advocate Children's Hospital.