The prolonged health and safety stressors of COVID-19 has many parents reaching out to mental health professionals with concern over their teenagers’ increased levels of anxiety. In the United States, teenagers already experience higher rates of anxiety disorders than any previous generation in history. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the prevalence of anxiety disorders among adolescents aged 13-18 is 31.9%, with females at a higher rate (38%) than males (26.1%).
Some teen anxiety is normal due to typical teen life stressors, including friends and family dynamics, self-identity, body image, achievement, and college admission. However, these stressors are heavily impacted by COVID-19, with added challenges brought on by distance learning, the disruption of the college process, and shelter-in-place orders disconnecting Generation Z teens from their vital in-person relationships. The result has high school seniors feeling robbed of their teenage memories with the hallmarks of their high school experience all but canceled. On the other hand, freshman high school students worry if the effects of the pandemic will allow them to have a “normal” high school experience at all.
Living in these uncertain times, should parents be concerned that Generation Z’s mental health wellness has become increasingly fragile?
One of the unique stress factors Generation Z faces is that teenagers today have, unfortunately, grown up in a heightened state of fear and uncertainty as a result of school shootings, terrorism, and global warming. In 2019, there were 25 shooting incidents on school grounds leaving eight students killed and 43 injured. Over the past ten years, there have been 180 school shootings with 356 victims, making the fear of going to school a very genuine concern for many teens. This fear, combined with global warming and the future of our planet, only contributes to Generation Z’s apprehension about their future. Now the COVID-19 pandemic sends teens the same message that the world is not a safe place, which increases their already heightened anxiety.
We live in unprecedented and extraordinary times, but parents need to remember that Generation Z is more vulnerable to fear and anxiety because they have no lived experience to see that there is hope for the future. The result is teens can easily imagine the worst that their future can hold. Parents and grandparents have a great deal of wisdom to share with today’s teens about how to create meaning, purpose, and a future in life after trauma because many were impacted by the likes of 9/11, Vietnam, and WWII. However, teens are not always eager to listen to advice. Given this obstacle, what can parents do to help teenagers cope with the stressors of this pandemic, thereby improving their mental health?
Maintain a Schedule
Understandably, families living, working, and studying in tight quarters can strain a teen’s mental health. As a result, parents need to help teens maintain a sense of normalcy with regularly scheduled sleep, exercise, time off screens, and healthy eating. Maintaining a routine allows teens to anticipate many aspects of their lives, counterbalancing the impact of COVID-19. Teenagers also need to take time to quiet their minds to offset the adverse effects of living mainly indoors. Meditation and mindful apps like Ten Percent Happier, Calm, Headspace, and, Unplug are excellent resources for teens.
Create Competency and Connections
Another way parents can help teens reduce their anxiety during quarantine is through cooking. Like many in America, teens have a newfound interest in food, learning recipes, and sharing with friends on social media their latest accomplishments in the kitchen. Teaching teens how to cook is not only teaching them an essential life skill that parents can check off their “parenting to-do-list” but also provides older generations an opportunity to share their family origin stories through food. This act of hearing family stories may help teens increase their sense of identity as well as expand their hopes for the future, knowing what their ancestors overcame.
Improve Critical Thinking Skills by Distinguishing Fact from Fiction
Trying to shield teens from scary topics about COVID-19 can easily backfire, leaving teens feeling even more anxious. Parents can help teens by speaking candidly and assisting them in distinguishing between facts and false information. Furthermore, parents need to put restrictions on the amount of news media teens consume and help them decipher between inaccurate and harmful media from credible sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov) and the World Health Organization (WHO.int).
Service to Others
Teens want to feel useful, and volunteering is an excellent way for teens to feel a sense of control over some aspects of their lives. Just because teens cannot go outside and engage in their community does not mean that they cannot make an impact. Teens can use this time to help in a new and creative capacity. Keep in mind there is also a secondary gain for many teens who have high school requirements of community service to graduate. Suggestions include:
- Foster animals through the ASPCA (aspca.org), Best Friend Animal Society (bestfriends.org), or help fosters pets through PACTS for Animals (pactforanimals.org) for hospital patients and military personnel.
- Tutor underserved students who need distance learning support through Teens Give (teensgive.org) or UPchieve (upchieve.org).
- Donate blood. Teens 16-years-old or older can donate blood to the American Red Cross (redcrossblood.org).
- Support small businesses by purchasing books from local bookstores or through www.bookshop.org.
- Offer technology expertise. Teens technology expertise can serve as an opportunity to virtually help seniors learn how to use Zoom or volunteer to set up and manage social media accounts for non-profits.
- Volunteer world-wide. Teens interested in world-wide volunteerism can explore volunteer options through the UN Online Volunteering (onlinevolunteering.org).
Understandably, teens feel a tremendous loss for the lives they knew before the pandemic, and many parents are concerned over teen anxiety and depression. However, there are many ways parents can help teens see that they are capable of doing more than just scrolling through Instagram and Tik-Tok. As parents, we need to remember that adolescence is a formative time for a teen’s self-identity. With parental’ support, teens can emerge from this pandemic more resilient with healthier coping skills to manage their mental health wellness. However, it is up to parents to model, guide, and teach teenagers what it means to thrive after adversity to build future adults of real strength, courage, and character. Generation Z’s mental health wellness depends upon it.
If you or someone you care about is feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious and maybe in fear of harming themselves or others, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990).
- Merikangas KR, He JP, Burstein M, Swanson SA, Avenevoli S, Cui L, Benjet C, Georgiades K, Swendsen J. Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders in U.S. Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). J Am Acad Child Adolesc, Psychiatry.2010 Oct;49(10):980-9. PMID: 20855043https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
- Walker, C., 10 years. 180 schools. 356 victims., July 2019, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2019/07/us/ten-years-of-school-shootings-trnd/
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