With kids home from school, adults working remotely, and families staying close to home, parents and teens are spending a lot more time together. Minus the activities that take us out into the world on a daily basis, there’s more opportunity for conversations, for connection, and to observe how kids are doing.
For parents, this is an important time to tune into your teens’ mental health and well-being, supporting teens through any difficulties they may be facing. That means asking good questions and watching for behavior that might indicate that a young person is dealing with depression, anxiety, or co-occurring disorders.
Some of the typical signs of these issues, such as feeling distracted and worried, are common for both teens and adults right now. However, a high intensity and consistency of these symptoms over time can indicate that a teen was already struggling with a mental health condition prior to the pandemic.
Tough Questions to Ask Teens
Now that families are eating meals together and sharing space—sometimes in close quarters—parents have more chances to ask key questions that may lead to important discussions. Ask open-ended questions and listen carefully to the answers, supporting teens if they struggle to open up. Pay close attention to both what teens say and what they do, as well as their general mood and attitude. You may uncover issues that you haven’t had time or space to notice before.
For example, does your teen seem overly relieved to have a break from school? If so, they might be experiencing bullying, cyberbullying, social anxiety, academic pressures, or friendship issues. Does your teen spend excessive amounts of time in front of a mirror, or frequently talk negatively about how they look? They may have body image, disordered-eating, or self-esteem issues. Do they seem sad and mopey, or tense and fidgety? They may be dealing with depression or anxiety.
Let’s look more closely at some of the warning signs of teen mental health issues.
Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Among Teens
Because this is an especially stressful time for everyone, parents need to keep a vigilant eye out for signs and symptoms of anxiety and vicarious trauma. While it’s normal for teens to feel distress and moments of anxiety right now, those symptoms may be exaggerated if underlying mental health conditions already exist.
Here are some signs and symptoms of anxiety among teenagers:
- Intense feelings of worry or fear
- Restlessness or edginess
- Difficulty concentrating
- Obsessive thoughts
- Muscle tension
- Problems sleeping
- Trembling and sweating
- Physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches, and muscle tension.
Warning Signs of Teen Depression
While some teens react to challenging life experience with anxious or obsessive behavior, others tend to shut down and withdraw. Hence, stress can trigger or exacerbate symptoms of depression. Here are some of the signs to watch for:
- Avoiding family time; withdrawing in their room
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Sense of despair, sadness, and hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Lack of motivation
- Unexplained aches and pains, headaches, or stomachaches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor grooming and messy room
- Talking about feeling worthless
- Irritability or anger
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Changes in eating habits and weight.
Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders Among Teenagers
For many families, this is a rare time of eating meals together on a regular basis. That means parents have an ongoing opportunity to gauge what their teens’ eating habits are like. In addition, they can observe their teens’ attitudes about weight and appearance.
Here are some symptoms of eating disorders, which may include anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
- Making excuses to avoid eating
- Secretly storing food or eating alone, particularly at night
- Distorted body image; body dysmorphia (focusing on a perceived flaw in one’s appearance)
- Ongoing use of laxatives, diet pills, and weight-loss aids
- Obsessing about calories and caloric intake
- Unwillingness to discuss weight gains or losses
- Extended bathroom use during or right after meals
- Constipation or vomiting
- Skin rash or dry skin
- Irregular menstruation or absence of menstruation
- Extreme cold sensitivity.
Red Flags of Substance Abuse in Teens
Using drugs and/or alcohol is often a way to self-medicate the painful symptoms of depression, anxiety, or trauma. Therefore, substance abuse in teens may become more frequent during stressful periods in a teen’s life. Parents can watch for the following red flags:
- Sneaking out of the house
- Being secretive about their phone and technology use
- Bloodshot or unfocused eyes
- Runny nose or redness around the nose
- Poor hygiene
- Smell of smoke on breath or clothes, or use of perfume or cologne to mask smoke
- Mood swings
- Hiding in their room
- Spending extended time in the bathroom
- Compulsive eating, frequent hunger or “munchies”
- Not communicating directly, avoiding eye contact.
Supporting Teens During This Stressful Time
Supporting teens and their well-being throughout this stressful time is very important to building strength and resilience for young people. Here are a few suggestions for parents looking to create a positive home environment to support their teen.
Limit exposure to news. While it’s important for teens to understand what’s going on in the world, too much information can exacerbate anxiety and fear. Consider serving as a source of filtered information for your teens if they’re willing or help them choose responsible media sources.
Create unplugged activities for teenagers. Virtual communication feels more essential now than ever. In the absence of IRL time with peers, kids may feel the need to digitally interact more with friends in order to feel connected. That said, too much time online can enhance symptoms of mental health issues. Build offline activities for teenagers into the daily schedule.
Get outside if possible. If you have a backyard or safe access to parks or live in a rural or suburban area where you can walk around, get outdoors as much as possible. Time in nature supports mood and immune-system function, and physical activities for teenagers reduces depressive symptoms.
Use the meal as medicine. Because we are cooking and eating at home, this is a great time to make healthy meals for teens and the whole family. Teens may enjoy planning meals, cooking, or baking. Cooking and sharing food can be a creative and healing experience.
Seek support if necessary. Many therapists are offering virtual therapy appointments during this time, supporting teens remotely. You can also access mental health services through tele-health companies. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help for a teen who is struggling.
Psychiatr Danub. 2012 Mar;24(1):90-3.
Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 9–17.
Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Aug 21;46(16):8661-6.