Parent Guide to Teen Mental Health During Quarantine

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on teen mental health. Our guide for parents dives into teen mental health data, tells you the warning signs to watch for in the teens in your life, and offers solutions to help teens stay mentally healthy during quarantine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us, but younger people have been particularly impacted. In February, they were attending school, hanging out with friends, and participating in sports and other extracurricular activities. By March, they were locked in the house and told they would be missing out on the rest of the school year, losing out on their role in the school play, and foregoing their chance at the varsity team -- all-important school-related activities that help teens feel fulfilled and develop a sense of identity outside the home. This loss of a normal teen life is a topic that many, including parents, educators, and students themselves, are concerned about and it's why we've put together this guide to teen mental health.

We have a range of practical schooling guidance for students and parents to help them through the coronavirus pandemic, but we also want to help with mental health during COVID-19. Here, we'll explain some of the preliminary data on how the crisis has affected teens across the country, give you some warning signs to look for in your child, and offer you some tangible ways that teens can keep themselves happy and healthy.

Teen Mental Health and Quarantine: By the Numbers

Researchers from around the globe started gathering teen mental health statistics as soon as quarantines were put in place. When we sat down to look at the data, we found that there were many studies that dealt with adults (during the pandemic, they've been three times more likely to experience anxiety, mental distress, or depression) but not many studies examined how teenagers were faring. Many of the ones that did specifically study students and teens were rudimentary and didn't offer much insight for parents. Others looked at teens in other countries whose school systems and societal structure didn't translate to American teens.

We did, however, find a couple of studies that will help you understand how this pandemic has affected adolescents and we'll break them down here.

The Surprising Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Teens

One relevant study, the Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time, and Family Connection, conducted by the Wheatley Institution, looked at the lives of 1,523 U.S. teenagers (specifically 8th, 10th, and 12th graders) as they quarantined. It examined their mental health, their time with family, and their time in front of screens. It then compared this data with findings from a 2018 study on the same topic, and the results were surprising.

As a group, teens did better during the pandemic than we would have guessed. In fact, reports of depression were actually lower in 2020 during the lockdown than they were in 2018. For instance, 27% of teens surveyed in 2018 said they were depressed and only 17% reported feeling depressed in 2020. The same was true for loneliness, which was hovering around 30% in the original study and dropped down slightly to about 22% during quarantine. Dissatisfaction with life also dipped a little, although general feelings of unhappiness rose a bit.

Perhaps less surprising was that nearly all of these categories started to trend negatively as the quarantine moved into the summer months, with loneliness, depression, and feelings of dissatisfaction taking a sharp uptick after school let out for summer break. Yet, even at their summer peak, the numbers for depression and loneliness didn't hit the 2018 percentages.

The non-profit group America's Promise Alliance dove into the same subject and its findings weren't quite as sunny. In The State of Young People During COVID-19 study, researchers surveyed 3,300 students aged 13-19. More than a quarter said that they were losing sleep because of anxiety, losing confidence in themselves, or feeling unhappy or depressed. Around a quarter of these teens also said they felt less connected to their school communities, teachers, and classmates.

When asked what was bothering them the most during the pandemic:

  • 52% said they were 'much more concerned than usual' about their health
  • 40% were worried about their family's financial situation
  • 39% were anxious about their education
  • 30% had concerns about meeting their basic needs (food, safety, medicine)

These worries were more pronounced among certain demographics. Teens living in cities were 15% more likely to express health worries than kids in rural areas. Asian youth, Latinx youth, and those whose parents were born outside the United States reported cognitive and emotional health issues at significantly higher percentages than black and white teens, and those whose parents were born in the United States.

Factors That Influence Teen Mental Health During COVID-19

The Teens in Quarantine study tied teen mental health during COVID to a few influential factors.

More or Less Sleep

First, during quarantine, teens were getting more sleep than they did pre-pandemic. The 2018 study found that only 55% of teens were getting seven or more hours of sleep at night during the school year. During the quarantine, that number rose to 84%.

With in-person school, kids typically have to wake up early to get ready and make their morning commute, meaning many miss out on the biologically imperative sleep that puberty demands. Online classes and homeschooling have allowed them to sleep later and become more aligned with their bodies' natural circadian rhythms; studies have shown that this can have a significant effect on mental health. Of the teens who got more than seven hours of shut-eye a night, only 17% reported feeling depressed, compared to 31% of those who got less than seven hours.

More or Less Time With Family
Other Factors

Teen Media Use During Coronavirus

One factor that's consistently been tied to mental health, even outside of quarantine, is screen time, especially texting, engaging with social media, and binge-watching shows and movies. With the pandemic forcing teens to relinquish their usual in-person get-togethers with friends, you'd naturally expect screen time to skyrocket. After all, it's their only way to socialize with peers during quarantine. Surprisingly, that didn't happen, at least for most forms of media.

Compared to 2018, teens actually spent less time gaming, texting, and using social media in 2020. Video chatting and TV watching did go up during quarantine but even those categories didn't see dramatic increases.

However, there were differences when it came to gender. While boys and girls watched the same amount of television (about 3.5 hours a day), boys spent more time gaming (nearly 4 hours vs. 2.5 for girls) and girls spent more time texting and using social media (about 3 hours a day).

Researchers were surprised that mediums designed for social connections decreased and mediums designed for passive enjoyment increased. But there are some reasons it makes sense.

Passive Media as a Coping Strategy

First, teens may be using streaming services as a method of coping during COVID-19. TV, movies, and video games are a way to relax and forget about the pressures of school, the worries of finances, and the anxiety about the pandemic for a little while. We also tend to think of these activities as solitary but many teens reported playing video games with parents and watching TV shows as a family, and this can be a healthy outlet when done in moderation.

Conversely, we tend to think of social media as connective and healthier, but it's actually been shown to have a more negative effect on mental health than TV and video games, which may also play a role in these surprising numbers.

Multi-Purpose Media

Is the Pandemic Affecting Your Teen's Mental Health?

So, the preliminary data about the pandemic seem to point to better teen mental health statistics than we would have predicted. It's happy news, to be sure, but it only gives us a glimpse of the group as a whole. Just because many teens have done okay, it doesn't mean they all have. It also doesn't mean this experience won't have negative effects down the road. That's why it's important to understand the warning signs and be equipped to help. Below, we'll take a look at identifying mental health issues in your teen, how to talk to your kids about these sensitive topics, and offer some steps you and your teen can take to make it through this difficult time together.

The Differences Between Sadness, Anxiety, and Clinical Depression

With everyone at home, as a parent, you have unprecedented access to your teen's daily activities and you might also be getting a bigger glimpse into your teen's emotional life. Yet, even with this new perspective, many parents find it hard to know whether a behavior is normal or if it warrants intervention. As a teen, you might also not understand if what you're feeling is typical under the circumstances or if you might need some help coping with a more serious mental health condition.

First, to understand what you or your teen is going through, it's important to know the differences between sadness, anxiety, and clinical depression.

Sadness

Sadness is a part of being human, and it's something we all experience at one time or another in life. It's the normal reaction to life events that we find disappointing. That is, it's most often tied to a particular trigger -- losing a job, failing a test, having temporary financial issues, or experiencing interpersonal problems with those who you are close to. In the context of quarantine, sadness might be triggered by the loss of the traditional school experience, grief about losing contact with friends, or the difficulty of adjusting to a lifestyle of quarantining. Teens suffering from sadness usually find relief by venting, crying, or taking out frustrations. Sadness typically goes away as we adapt to these changes.

Anxiety
Depression

Teen Mental Health Challenges: Warning Signs for Parents

As a parent, it's not always easy to spot the difference between depression and the normal ups and downs of teenage behavior. The coronavirus pandemic has only made it harder; it's presented a number of unique challenges when it comes to identifying mental health issues. For example, it might be hard to tell if your teen is withdrawing from activities they love because they have no way of safely doing them during a pandemic. It's also tough to spot social withdrawal when social withdrawal is such a part of our lives right now.

That said, there are several warning signs that might signal depression in teens and we'll cover some of the biggest here.

Physical Issues

Studies have shown that depression often manifests itself physically. These symptoms might include things like:

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain
  • Abdominal cramping and discomfort
  • Aching muscles
  • Lowered pain tolerance
  • Fatigue or lower energy levels
  • Digestive problems
  • Irregular bowel movements
Social Withdrawal
Trouble Sleeping of Lack of Appetite
Drop in Grades
Drug or Alcohol Abuse
Low Self-Esteem
Different Kids, Different Responses

How to Talk to Your Teen About Mental Health

Teens are often reluctant to talk to adults about their problems and even those who do may not know how to express their feelings. It's a good idea to open the lines of communication with your teen. Here are a few pointers from experts for talking to your teen in a healthy and productive way:

Be Wise About Timing

Don't start a conversation about mental health with your teen if you've just had an argument or if they're in the middle of doing school or an activity they enjoy. Be careful about your mood, too. If you're irritated, it's going to come through, even unconsciously, and have an impact on the conversation. Choose a time when you're both calm, relaxed, and receptive.

Be Transparent
Be Upfront
Be Validating
Be Ready for the Blow-Off

Teen Mental Health During Quarantine: Actions You Can Take

There are all sorts of things parents and teens can do to stay sane, healthy, and happy during the quarantine. We'll offer a few below, but we've also created a handy High School Student's Guide for Minimizing & Managing School Stress During COVID-19 that offers even more helpful tips and coping strategies.

Make a Routine and Know When to Break It

Create a routine that incorporates a:

  • Wake-up time
  • Homeschooling time
  • Exercise time
  • Family togetherness time
  • Free time
  • Friends (and family outside the home) time

Be consistent with the schedule -- knowing what your day will look like is a big factor in getting things done and feeling fulfilled. Schedules create structure and help us feel a sense of accomplishment, and experts say that sticking to these routines -- even small ones like brushing teeth, dressing for the day, and having that cup of coffee at 9 am -- are anchors that reduce anxiety. But you should also be able to break the routine sometimes for a refreshing change of pace.

Stay Connected Safely
Take a Break from Upsetting Content
Get Out in Nature
Practice Mindfulness
Get Physical
Set the Tone
Seek Professional Help
Take Suicide Talk Seriously