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Many teens are experiencing anxiety and depression during COVID-19 — here’s what parents can do to help

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By Meera Jagannathan

Teenagers are struggling to cope with pandemic isolation one year in, but many of their parents are pulling out all the stops to help them, a new report suggests.

Some 46% of parents say they’ve observed “a new or worsening mental health condition” in their teen since the pandemic began, according to Michigan Medicine’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. 

Teen girls’ parents were more likely than teen boys’ parents to note heightened anxiety (36% vs. 19%) and depression (31% vs. 18%) symptoms in their kids. The parents of teen boys and teen girls were similarly likely to report sleep issues, withdrawal from family, and aggressive behavior. 

Nearly three in four parents said the pandemic, which forced many kids’ schools online and limited in-person social interaction, had had a negative impact on their teen’s ability to interact with friends.

“Although serious illness from COVID-19 is uncommon among teens, the changes brought on by the pandemic have wreaked havoc on their lives,” the report said. “At just the age when they are biologically primed to seek independence from their families, restrictions to control the COVID-19 pandemic have kept teens at home.”

The survey included responses from 977 parents with at least one child aged 13 to 18, part of a larger nationally representative survey conducted in January of more than 2,000 parents with at least one child aged 18 or younger.

Parents who registered a negative mental-health impact in their teenager reported employing a range of strategies, including loosening family coronavirus restrictions to let the kid interact more with friends (52%), relaxing social-media rules (47%), speaking with school counselors or teachers (34%), consulting a mental-health provider (29%), and encouraging their kid to try an mental-health app or web-based program (25%).

“Parents also may want to consider whether they are transferring some of their own pandemic-related stress onto their teens,” the report’s authors wrote.

Parents can also keep an open line of communication, be understanding about teens’ need for privacy and give them space, ask trusted sources such as a primary-care doctor for recommendations on mental-health apps and resources, and help kids create “a healthy and productive routine” to combat poor sleep, the report said, citing advice from mental-health experts.

Parents should get mental-health assistance if their teen expresses thoughts of self-harm or suicide , the authors added. Resources include the free, confidential  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline  (1-800-273-8255), the  Crisis Text Line  (text HOME to 741741), the  Trevor Project  for LGBTQ youth (1-866-488-7386) and the  Trans Lifeline  (877-565-8860).

Previous studies have also highlighted the pandemic’s mental-health impact on teenagers. From mid-March through October, the share of children’s emergency-department visits related to mental health increased by 31% for kids aged 12 to 17 compared to the same period in 2019, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published in November.

A June survey of parents with children under 18, the results of which were published in the journal Pediatrics , found that “27% of parents reported worsening mental health for themselves, and 14% reported worsening behavioral health for their children” since last March. 

Child mental-health experts told MarketWatch last fall that parents should monitor their kids for major behavioral changes, and contact a healthcare provider if a behavioral change is persistent and begins to affect their ability to function.

“We should expect that some kids likely will have some changes in their behaviors and their moods,” said clinical psychologist Garica Sanford, the training director at the nonprofit Momentous Institute in Dallas, Texas. “But we really want to look at severity, frequency and duration of changes.”

Parents should also avoid trying to diagnose any mental-health conditions on their own, experts said. Instead, they can note any changes in behavior and relay the observations to a healthcare provider.

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