5 Ways to Help Kids and Teens Navigate Through Mental Health Challenges (Pandemic and Beyond)

Kids have been uniquely challenged throughout the pandemic, and other stressors are causing a mental health epidemic for tweens and teens. Here's how to have productive, helpful conversations as a supportive adult

Kayley Rosen, teen anxiety during pandemic
Kaylie Rosen. Photo: Aundre Larrow

More than two years of living with the COVID pandemic has taken its toll on mental health for people in all walks of life, but many experts agree the impact on the mental health of children and teens could be reaching a crisis point as a result of remote schooling and social distancing — not to mention the many other concerns simultaneously facing the generation (such as school shootings and climate change).

"The goal of adolescence is to develop social skills to support subsequent independence," says Dr. John Piacentini, director for the UCLA Center for Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support.

An important part of this process is learning how to navigate the world alongside others, but as COVID thwarted social connections, "it's just been devastating for kids," he says. "It really cut them off from peers, and from the outside world."

With school going remote, and activities like sports and extracurriculars getting cut completely, there's been a loss of connection, Dr. Piacenti says, "which just shrunk their universes in a very profound way" and cut off the support systems they needed to gain healthy independence.

And while social media does help kids stay connected, the lack of face-to-face contact creates its own challenges, says Kate Sheehan, licensed clinical social worker and CARES Managing Director.

"You might have [had] a bullying interaction on social media, but then you could go to your school and actually have your actual, in-person friends to talk it through with," she says. "And with that piece removed, you're left with just the damaging bullying part."

Teenage boy looking out of bedroom window

Also thwarted were the major milestone events that traditionally mark growth, accomplishment, and the passage of time, like proms and graduations. "School ended, and they just turned off Zoom," says Dr. Piacentini.

While much of regular life has returned since the onset of the pandemic, some of the impacts on kids' lives and mental health may last much longer. But there are ways to help. Read on for five tips for supporting the mental health of pre-teens and teenagers in your life.

Talk to Your Kids

If parents start to see concerning patterns of behavior from their kids—including lethargy, a lack of interest in friends and hobbies they previously enjoyed, aggression or anger—they need to talk to their kids, and ask them what's going on "in a manner that is non-judgmental and open, providing some level of understanding and reassurance," says Dr. Piacentini.

And while you can offer children advice or support, you shouldn't do all the work to fix their troubles, Dr. Piacentini says: "Parents can guide the kids in terms of helping them problem solve by coming up with different alternatives, possible solutions, and evaluating how effective those solutions might be."

This helps train kids to eventually be able to cope with problems on their own rather than look to others for quick fixes, an important part of resiliency that's necessary for adulthood.

teen health

Maintain Structure

It's important to try to keep things as normal as possible, even when life can still feel anything but.

"Keep the structures together," says Dr. Piacentini. That includes maintaining clear rules and expectations with your kids rather than giving into temptation to make things a free-for-all to cheer them up; it can help them feel more grounded during times of uncertainty.

In particular, students who started middle school or high school online and are now back in person might find themselves feeling a bit unmoored.

"The hierarchy is so different, but they didn't get the training for it," says Sheehan. "They don't know who's in charge, and they're all confused."

It's that much more important, then, to be intentional about rituals at home, which includes naming the rituals that are already in place. For example, if you have a weekly family tradition, Sheehan suggests saying to your kids: "One of our values is spending time together, and we're going to do that by making sure we don't miss the Friday movie."

"It gives a little bit of a structure to our lives, and to the connections and to our values," she says. "And so that can be a through line for kids to cling to—so they know what their values are, what their family's values are, what the purpose of things is."

woman using phone

Set Clear Screen Time Boundaries

For most kids, video games and social media can be a positive way to communicate with friends and stay connected—especially in a time when face-to-face interactions were few and far between. So it's not realistic to cut off screen time completely.

"For a lot of kids, If they can't see their friends in public, they can at least communicate through playing games," says Dr. Piacentini. "The concern is too much time becoming obsessed with social media or video games to the exclusion of other kinds of necessary things, school and family."

Sheehan adds that social media is designed to suck kids in further, so parents have to decide what a healthy amount of screen time is: "It really does fall to parents to set some boundaries and limits because those platforms are not going to do it."

Dr. Piacentini suggests putting limits on screen usage generally, like all electronics are off at mealtimes and before bedtime.

And, he adds, parents should be aware of the sites their kids are visiting, because even the most innocuous-seeming ones can cause harm. (One example: last fall, the Wall Street Journal reported that internal Facebook research concluded that Instagram was toxic for teenage girls, with the site making body image issues worse for one in three girls.)

"Even with older kids, parents need to be involved, and make sure that their kids are using social media appropriately," he says, "and not going to sites that may harm their mental health and make them feel worse."

Being a supportive adult to LGBTQ+ Youth

Model Making Self-Care a Priority

Even if they're focused on their kid's well-being, it's important that parents also take care of themselves, which includes getting enough sleep and exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, tending to in-person relationships and monitoring how they feel.

"Parents need to practice good mental hygiene," Dr. Piacentini says. "They're modeling behavior, and the kids are going to focus on what the parents are doing, not what they're saying."

If you're experiencing a particularly hard day or week, try asking your kids to take a walk, or cook your favorite meal together. It can not only help you feel better, but gives your kids a clear roadmap for navigating through challenges and maintaining good mental health.

"You wouldn't be able to drive your kid to school If you don't put gas in a car," adds Sheehan. "You cannot parent your kids unless you are fueling yourself."

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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