For more than a year, many of our familiar routines have been altered and that can be especially challenging for teens who have gained a bit more independence in adolescence.
Parents and other adults such as teachers, grandparents and coaches may have noticed emotional and mental health changes in their preteen or teen over the course of the year. When is thus cause for concern rather than just general teenage moodiness?
“Being the parent of teenagers, I understand this can be a challenging distinction. Lots of social and emotional changes happen during the preteen and teenager years, and consistency and routines are really important,” said Carmen Holley, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health consultant for Lurie Children’s Center for Childhood Resilience. “Mood swings are typical during this phase of life and are generally not an area of great concern. However, if the mood changes seem more severe and long-lasting, this might be a sign the child may need additional support.”
The change in routine, recommendations from health officials, social isolation and remote school are just some aspects of life that may have also heightened or brought on anxiety. Even now, as businesses and schools reopen and there is a return of normalcy, anxiety may still harbor.
“First, I want parents and caregivers to know that it is normal to feel overwhelmed with all of the messages they receive about keeping their children safe,” Holley said. “At the same time, our children are having all kinds of feelings about their experiences, feeling anxious being one of them. Feeling anxious from time to time is a typical response to stress. However, anxiety that is intense, prolonged and seems to ‘come out of the blue’ might be indicators that the child needs additional support.”
It’s natural for a teenager to experience a range of moods and emotions throughout the day. Holley advises that it’s important to stay involved and communicate with your teen. Young people have had many reasons to feel sad over the past year, so it can be hard to know when it’s more than sadness and cause for concern.
“Sadness is a typical, temporary emotion. Depression is a mood disorder that is much more than feeling sad (although sadness is one symptom of depression). Some warning signs for depression in preteens and teenagers might be: feeling sad/hopeless most of the time, irritability, lack of interest in leisure activities, insomnia and changes in their sleeping and/or eating habits,” Holley said.
The pandemic, coupled with the events that have led to civil unrest, have had a cumulative impact on so many young people and their families. Adults play a critical role in helping children and teenagers process their feelings and make meaning of their experiences.
“If I could give some guidance to parents, caregivers and trusted adults, I would say listen and comfort,” Holley said. “Listen to your child, with patience and without judgment. Comfort the child by telling them that all feelings are OK, and that you are there to be with them through all of it. We have experienced a collective trauma, and so there must be a collective healing. A place to start is with ourselves.
“As adults, we need to acknowledge what we are grappling with, and how to heal ourselves. This is a critical first step to being able to support our kids.”