The pandemic has become known as “the Great Pause”—a time of enforced closures, cancellations, and loss. For teens, this pause has been more devastating than for other age groups, because it has interrupted a period of extreme growth and change.
During adolescence, as the body and brain mature, teens’ cognitive, emotion-regulation, and social skills are all developing at rapid rates. And while family remains an essential foundation of support for teens, much of their growth at this age is driven by relationships and experiences outside the home.
That’s why so many teens have lost ground over the past year, in terms of mental health, academic achievement, and social-emotional learning. In fact, 46 percent of parents have noticed a new or worsening mental health condition in their teen since March 2020. And a new study shows that teens who attended school remotely experienced significantly lower levels of social, emotional, and academic well-being as compared to those who attended in person—creating what has become known as a “thriving gap.”
In order to close that gap, teens need assistance to “relaunch” into the world. With the support of parents, caregivers, and mental healthcare providers, they can make up the ground they’ve lost and experience post-traumatic growth, the positive psychological changes that emerge from times of great difficulty.
5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Get Back on Track
Here are five ways parents can support teens to get back on track socially, emotionally, and academically.
1. Help them make sense of what’s happened over the last year.
There’s no doubt that teens have missed many important developmental and social milestones, in addition to suffering from increased stress, loneliness, and collective trauma. But experts say that parents and teachers should avoid referring to this period as a “lost year.” Because the adolescent brain is in a process of changing and maturing, it’s also more flexible and resilient. Thus, as long as teens have the support they need—including caring, authentic connections with parents and, ideally, at least one peer—they can and will recover from this distressing time.
If parents, caregivers, and teachers can shift the narrative to focus on teens’ strengths and ability to adapt and change, young people are more likely to feel empowered rather than depleted by the experiences of the past year. In addition, parents’ attitudes, coping abilities, and stress levels significantly influence teens’ well-being, or lack of it. A survey of 2,000 high school students during the initial school closures found that “adolescents’ mental health was inextricably linked with parents’ functioning.” Therefore, parents who practice self-care are benefitting the entire family.
“We have to start considering how we are going to frame this period as we emerge from it. We need to focus not just on hardship and tragedy. We need to link this period to praise about how our kids were able to develop adaptive skills—to give them a positive sense of self.”
– Mitch Prinstein,
Chief Science Officer for The American Psychological Association
2. Create safety and structure around social reintegration.
For those with teen social anxiety, remote schooling has provided temporary relief from distressing symptoms, because they’ve been able to avoid triggering social situations. For these adolescents, it may be particularly challenging to return to in-person school and a more normal level of social interaction.
Moreover, young people who did not have a previous diagnosis of teen social anxiety are now worried about resuming IRL relationships because they’re so accustomed to communicating via their devices. The self-consciousness that many teens experience in social situations is now heightened by the lack of practice during isolation.
Here are some ways parents can support teens who are anxious about re-entry:
- Validate their feelings and reassure them they’re not alone; people of all ages are feeling something similar right now
- Help them learn coping strategies for dealing with anxiety in the moment, such as mindful breathing exercises and compassionate self-talk
- Keep their social contact outside of school fairly limited at first, and encourage them to gradually increase their get-togethers over time as they begin to feel more comfortable
- Ask teens what interactions they’re most worried about, and role-play these situations in advance
- Maintain or reestablish a regular routine that allows teens enough time to get ready in the morning and relax and recharge afterward.
3. Make sure they get the academic support they need.
Between the challenges of remote schooling, the everyday stressors distracting teens, and the high rates of mental health concerns during the past year, academic engagement and academic achievement are both down among high school students. Following the spring 2020 school closures, one study estimated that students would start school that fall with about two-thirds of the learning gains in reading and less than half of the learning gains in math that they would have received in a typical school year. Given the additional disruptions in school schedules and delivery throughout the 2020–2021 school year, these gaps have likely expanded.
The mental health challenges impacting students’ learning are even more critical to address than the academic achievement gaps. In a YouthTruth survey of done in fall 2020, close to half of the 85,000 students surveyed said that feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious was their biggest obstacle to learning. Other obstacles were distractions at home and family responsibilities, health issues, and personal relationships. On average, Hispanic, Latinx, multiracial, and Black students faced more obstacles than white or Asian students. In addition, 57 percent of girls and 79 percent of students with a nonbinary gender identity reported mental health issues, versus one-third of boys.
That’s why academic support often needs to encompass more than tutoring in a particular subject. According to a 2021 report from the Department of Education, “social, emotional, identity, cognitive, and academic development are all interconnected. Improving academic outcomes for students requires nurturing each of these areas of development.” A program that provides specialized academic support alongside a tailored mental health treatment plan can help teens create a sense of motivation and purpose in regard to both learning and life.
4. Don’t lose the silver linings.
Despite all that teens lost over the last year, one remediating factor has been spending more time with family. In a study involving 400 teens released in January 2021, the majority of participants reported feeling more support from family and less family conflict overall. In a survey done early in the pandemic, 68 percent of teens said their families had become closer during the pandemic. These teens experienced increased parent-child communication, more time to bond with siblings, and regular family mealtimes. And among that group, only 15 percent reported feeling depressed, vs. 27 percent of those who did not believe their families had become closer. Hence, the changes in routine that allow for more family togetherness are clearly worth maintaining even as activities outside the home resume.
Furthermore, the same survey isolated another positive result of remote schooling and distancing guidelines: Teens got more sleep. About 84 percent of teens got seven or more hours of sleep per night, up from about half of teens in the preceding years. Consequently, adolescents who regularly slept seven or more hours per night were about 50 percent less likely to be depressed—validating the critical role of sleep in supporting teen mental health. Even as teens reestablish their social lives and busy schedules, getting enough sleep should remain a priority.
5. Address mental health issues now rather than hoping they’ll go away on their own.
Teen mental health issues were at high levels before the pandemic and have become even more common over the past year. A decrease in the stigma surrounding mental health disorders may be one positive result of these troubling statistics. However, that doesn’t mean that symptoms can be ignored, or that they will go away when things go back to “normal” or get back on track.
Teens who are experiencing trauma, anxiety, depression, and/or suicidal ideation need professional assessment and treatment before a crisis occurs. For some teens, residential treatment or a summer outpatient program with an academic support component may be the optimal approach to help them get back on track. Teens can build healthy coping mechanisms, excitement about learning, and practical skills for organization and time management. Ultimately, they’ll return to school with enhanced well-being, a sense of confidence, and the tools they need to succeed academically while making authentic connections with their expanded community.