As teens return to school, easing pandemic fears means meeting them where they are

September 09, 2021
masked students in classroom
By Jillian Cohan Martin

Being a teenager is tough. And the last couple years have been extremely tough for everyone, especially teens.

Life’s COVID-related changes have hit teenagers at the same time their sense of identity, belonging and independence is also coming into focus — not to mention changes to their bodies and their brains. With all that at stake, the return to classrooms this fall is bound to be difficult.

We’ve already seen warning signs that young people are under strain. In 2020, mental health-related ER visits for teens and tweens climbed more than 30% compared to a year earlier, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Kids are reporting more social isolation, many are feeling anxious, depressed and disconnected from their friends and peers,” says Dr. Amy Khan, an internal medicine physician and executive medical director at Regence.

Khan and other experts say the key to helping teenagers now is to meet them where they are. Show compassion for all they’re going through and understanding that their worries may play out differently than you expect.

“Some students are feeling a great sense of relief about returning to classroom learning, but for some, staying at home provided a reprieve from the stresses of teenage life,” Khan says.

It’s also important for parents to understand that some teens may be extremely uncomfortable in social situations as the pandemic drags on, adds Dr. Susan Bartell, a nationally recognized child psychologist and contributor to U.S. News & World Report.

“Some teens are very anxious about returning to school,” she says. “They’re out of ‘practice’ at socializing, and even taking classes in the traditional way. They’re worried that they will be exhausted because online school gave them more time to sleep, and they’re stressed because all the extracurriculars will ramp up again.”

Many teens will be able to bounce back, Bartell says. But those who already struggle with emotional health or learning issues may be more at risk as we head into the classroom.

“I don’t think we can assume that all teens are resilient,” she says. “Like adults, some are resilient, and some less so. If you have a child you know to struggle with change, transition or emotional health, there should not be an assumption that they are resilient.”

As with any difficult moment in a young person’s life, both doctors say trusted adults can play a critical role in helping teens find their footing and overcome the obstacles confronting them.

5 ways to support your teen

Khan and Bartell offer the following tips for parents to help teens navigate the transition back to school and beyond.

Be patient.

Since the pandemic began, “every aspect of our children’s lives has been disrupted: school, time with friends, sports, normal social interactions,” Khan says. While learning online, many teens lost ground academically, and the emotional toll of social isolation left a lot of them bored, lonely or apathetic. “At a minimum, kids are more awkward; some are socially stunted.”

Parents can take this time to extend grace and understanding that young people may not be where we expect them to be, whether that’s in terms of grades, making or renewing friendships, or taking care of responsibilities at home.

With multiple subjects to learn, junior high and high school students may need extra help with academics this year, Khan says. Parents may also need to help them develop life skills like planning, decision making and time management.

In addition, Bartell encourages parents to keep an eye out for signs of vulnerability and to create space for teens’ feelings to come to the surface. “Watch a show together, take a walk, get a manicure, play ball. Don’t try to make the teen see things differently, don't try to solve all their problems, just be an ear.”

Acknowledge pandemic fatigue.

COVID-19 has been part of our lives much longer than most of us could imagine. Teens have been asked to mask up and keep their distance at a time in their development when feelings of invincibility are common. Yet the Delta variant’s rise, combined with the return to school buildings, means these precautions are critically important.

How can we convince teens to stay safe if they’re burnt out on all the rules? “This is going to be tough parenting because even adults are feeling this way,” Bartell says. “It is important to acknowledge teens’ feelings, their fatigue and their frustration, and to not become frustrated and angry with them.”

It’s also important to demonstrate confidence in the decision to return to school, Khan says, as long as students follow steps to stay healthy. And with vaccines available to teens, getting the COVID shot can protect not just their family, but also their friends and school community from serious illness.

Khan suggests sharing accurate information with your teen and addressing their concerns. Have a frank conversation about how they and their friends are taking real risks if they break the rules.

Find ways to practice social skills.

Many parents used to take for granted that by the time their kids hit middle and high school, they knew how to make or maintain friendships and navigate new social situations.

After more than a year and a half of isolation and virtual schooling, we can no longer make that assumption, Khan says.

“Necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, these changes led to setbacks in learning and social skills. Teens might need to brush up on how to connect with their peers, pick up on social cues and interact with adults outside their families like teachers and coaches.”

To practice social skills, she suggests doing role-play exercises with your teen and family. It might feel silly at first, but working through these scenarios can make teens more comfortable and less anxious.

Not sure where to start? Try these guides for common social situations in middle school and high school.

Keep lines of communication open.

You can’t help your teen if you don’t know what’s going on with them. Yet adolescence is a time when many young people internalize their feelings or share with friends rather than parents.

Khan stresses the importance of talking openly with teens and finding out what’s at the root of their concerns. Parents can help reduce pandemic and social anxiety by being realistic, answering teens’ questions candidly, and arming them with information from trusted sources, she says.

Bartell adds that “the best way to get teens to open up is to listen, without judgment, and to talk less.” Don’t criticize their friendships or choices, but rather be curious and find ways to be supportive. “This is not a pandemic issue, this is an ‘all the time’ issue.”

Don’t hesitate to get help.

This advice goes for teens and for parents alike. The challenges of 2020 and 2021 are bigger than any individual. It’s OK not to be OK, and there are lots of resources we can turn to when things get hard.

How will you know when it’s time to get help? Khan advises keeping a close eye on how your teen is acting.

“Be alert for academic struggles and changes in behavior, especially isolating for long periods of time, and extreme irritability or anger. When needed, connect kids to resources for educational and mental health support,” she says. “For teens, virtual therapy can be a more private and convenient option to see a specialist.”

To get started, Khan recommends reviewing the information about teen well-being in the CDC’s Parental Resources Kit. It’s also a good idea to find out what mental health tools are covered by your health plan, including self-guided resources or expert help. 

For instance, Khan says, Regence’s customer service team has special training in mental health first aid. “They can help our members understand their mental health benefits or find support for their kids and the entire family.”

For parents, Bartell suggests reaching out to friends, online parenting groups or a counselor if you’re struggling.

You can find a therapist or support group in your community or tap into nationwide resources from advocacy groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI offers peer family support groups, a help line, online discussion groups, mental health information, and referrals to other resources.

“Much like any other tough period in the life of parenting a teen, feeling supported now is important,” Bartell says. “If you feel like the issues your teen is presenting are too big to manage, seek help for yourself and your child, too.” 

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Jillian Cohan Martin is a journalist and content strategist based in Portland, Oregon.

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