COVID: possibly the most difficult struggle yet for teens

I have worked with adolescents and teens for several years; in fact, it is one of my areas of specialization. Never before have I seen teens struggling as much as they are now in the midst of COVID. 

For almost a year, they’ve been trying to adjust to virtual learning, and, in most cases, unsuccessfully. 

When they were in school, all they talked about was how much they hated school, but now that it has been yanked away from them, they are feeling the social isolation intensely, they can’t get out of the house to see their friends, they miss the structure of school, they find it difficult to learn from home, they are becoming depressed and anxious, and they end up hanging out in their bedroom all day and night. The teens I am seeing are telling me they are sleeping or not paying attention during their Zoom classes; in fact, they are spending a lot of time sleeping their day away. They desperately want to be back in school.

It’s like a roller coaster ride – without the excitement. They are in school, then learning from home, then back in school, then back home, and we are expecting them to manage and cope with these changes when nothing is normal in their life.

They miss social activities – going to the movies or a football game or hanging out with friends at a fast food restaurant – and this is causing all kinds of emotional issues.

These struggles in turn are resulting in relationship problems with their parents, siblings and friends.

This has been a huge adjustment for adolescents and teens, and one that is not working very well.

I am seeing kids turn to drugs or alcohol as a method of coping and to numb their depression and anxiety; they are cutting; they are harming themselves and talking about ending their life.

This is an extremely serious and potentially dangerous time for kids. They don’t know if or when they will return to school and they are living in the unknown with no clear-cut decisions regarding the future. They are worried and anxious. They want certainty in times of uncertainty.

To complicate a difficult situation even more, teens are seeing college and pro sports resuming when they were told high school sports are cancelled. If the colleges and pros can play, why can’t they, they are asking.

To make matters worse, they are not asking for help. If they are struggling with virtual learning, they won’t tell anyone because they worry about looking dumb among their peers. They still want to fit in, even when learning virtually.

They are struggling to keep it together and desperate for some sense of normalcy. 

They’ve lost their sense of identity; their life as they knew it no longer exists.

Parents are seeing the changes in their kids and feeling helpless on what to do. They, too, are feeling frustrated.

We all are pioneers, venturing into the unknown together.

When I talk with teens during therapy sessions, we discuss establishing structure at home as a possible solution to their learning challenges. I suggest they wake up at their usual time, eat breakfast, and shower so they can be mentally alert for school. I also recommend they take breaks as they normally would at school; step away from the computer and phone for a few minutes between classes or during lunch time, and change their environment, even if it is only for a few minutes. 

I also encourage teens to go outside. Many don’t even look out the window to see if the sun is shining or if there is snow on the ground. And especially important: I urge kids to maintain their same sleep pattern, make sure they are eating regularly and healthfully, and they are keeping up with good hygiene. I’m noticing these normal daily routines are changing, and not in a healthy direction.

Communication is equally important. Eat meals together as a family and talk about how your day is going. Parents: get your kids talking. They only have you now for face-to-face communication. Often, parents are just as frustrated as their kids and tend to throw up their hands in hopelessness and cut off conversations. This leaves kids with no in-person communication.

It is easy to take out your frustrations on those you live with – your parents, your siblings and other relatives. This is when communication is especially important. Kids need validation, don’t let them hide out in their bedroom in isolation.

I’ve seen some families create a quarantine pod – they get together with the same small group of families, so they all have an opportunity to socialize safely. They create their own “bubble.”

The pandemic has created an opportunity to start new family traditions – a movie night or a board game night, meditating together or learning yoga – there are so many new activities you can introduce as a family. Kids can have fun with their parents, and parents may even loosen up a bit, too. Parents: don’t be so rigid with your expectations; your kids are struggling probably more than they ever have in their life. They need your encouragement and support. 

The world teens have known for their entire life is not the world they are living in now. The pandemic can bring families closer together or force an even bigger wedge between you. It is your choice. Talk with your kids, and often.

If you feel your teen is struggling and you are not seeing any signs of progress, you may want to consider consulting a therapist. The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health has a full team of highly qualified mental health professionals who can help. Call the center at 248.399.7447 or visit the center’s website at, click on “our therapists,” and find one you feel is the best fit for your teen.