Helping Teens Cope with the Stress of the Pandemic

5 ways to relieve stress caused by the pandemic 0:48

Editor’s note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in working with teenagers, parents, couples and families.

(CNN) – I started working with Shannon, a high school student, early in the lockdown. Shannon has asthma and is afraid of catching COVID-19. You are also afraid of making a family member or someone else sick. And he fears that the pandemic will never end, that things will not feel normal again.

I also work with Tim, a high school senior. I started therapy with Tim about two years ago. He is a handsome, popular and athletic boy. But he is stressed about not being able to access the upper-middle-class life that his parents have given him. You cannot visualize success, and you are painfully anxious about it. Especially during the pandemic, possible failure is on your mind almost constantly.

Do you remember worrying about your adult life as a teenager? Me neither. But children now think differently.

Like Shannon and Tim (not their real names), they have this wide range of experiences and knowledge, based in large part on what is available to them on screens and from their friends.

The pandemic has made things much worse. Many teens I work with suffer from almost overwhelming social anxiety, either from lack of practice after a year with very little time with friends, or from social insecurity in general. As a result, they regularly experience the fear of missing something, and believe that their friends are having fun on TikTok and Snapchat, increasing their stress levels.

Some also feel a sense of despair, depression and anxiety that they have never experienced before, as they have always considered themselves positive and optimistic people. Several of my clients are now taking medication to balance their moods.

How to recognize stress in teens

Sometimes our children actually tell us that they are stressed, which is surprising. If they do, you’re in luck. Skip to the “what parents can do to help” section right now.

Most likely they will not. In my experience, minors are rarely forthcoming about these things, assuming that parents will not understand or may limit their freedom to monitor them at home in a misguided attempt to help them.

I recommend that parents be on the lookout for any marked changes in their children’s mood or behavior due to anxiety and worry. Stressed children can be irritable, avoidant, and even withdrawn. And / or your stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms, such as fatigue, muscle pain, headaches, stomach problems, and trouble sleeping.

They may also regulate their emotions worse, get in a bad mood, get angry, and be overly emotional. Your previously obedient child may suddenly appear rude, he responds, may yell and disturb the order of the house. Before imposing a discipline or consequence, sit down with him, talk and listen, not just about his stress levels, but about his emotional life in general.

If it’s stress, get to the cause. It seems to me that parents are often wrong about the reasons why their children feel stressed. Parents may think, for example, that their children are concerned about their grades when in fact they are concerned about being socially neglected.

Keep in mind that what stresses you out about your child is probably different from what burdens him. So listen to their opinion. Show curiosity. But give your child space and time to process it. Put aside your judgment and your ego, and listen, understand and don’t overdo it.

Sometimes just listening and understanding can solve the problem. But if not, talk about what you can do together to help.

What can parents do to help?

Guide your child to calm his mind and solve his problems. A moment of meditation or a few deep breaths can quickly ease a stressed child. And once that has calmed down, divide the stressor into digestible chunks.

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Maybe you can ask your teacher for an extension on a project. Or you can send an apology message to your friend for offending her.

Often times, it is simply a matter of viewing the stressful situation in a different light. Reflective problem solving in stressful situations is an invaluable lifelong skill.

And lastly, be a healthy driving role model. Don’t forget that you are a huge influence on your child. Children always notice how you manage your stress.

Gender differences in stress management

In general, adolescent girls are more likely to say that they feel stressed, and to a greater degree, than their male peers.

That said, many of my colleagues and I have found that this finding may be because they are raised to be emotionally expressive and vulnerable. Even in the first few therapy sessions, I find that they often reveal their stressors almost immediately.

We teach children, from an early age, to be much more stoic and to show few emotions. Anger is too often the only expressed emotion they can show. As a result, children cry much less and internalize their emotions much more.

Since our sons are probably just as stressed out as our daughters, we must encourage them to be more emotionally expressive. Fathers and other men can have a profound impact in this regard, modeling emotional vulnerability and showing their sons that this does not diminish masculinity. And mothers can reward that behavior with direct recognition and validation.

Some ideas for after the pandemic

It can be difficult to imagine the positive consequences of this pandemic, especially for those who fell ill, lost loved ones, or lost their jobs. But keep in mind that surviving this time and coming out of it with a sense of resilience is a great achievement.

Over dinner, in the car, or over an evening at home, consider starting a friendly family conversation reflecting on the past year with your children. Point out the degree to which they handled all the stressors they faced: health fears, quarantine, hybrid school, online classes, and a lot of time away from friends and activities.

Point out the life lessons they have learned along the way: doing laundry, making dinner, gardening, playing the piano, teaching grandparents to video chat, raising money for a food bank, or advocating for a cause at the what they believe.

Remind them that simply by having weathered a pandemic once in a century, they have proven to be competent and resilient.

Remind them that you are there to support them. And when faced with stress in the future, they will be immensely better equipped to handle it.