4 Red Flags of Pandemic Stress in Teens: A Psychologist's Advice

The ongoing stress, fear, continued disappointment, and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic can wear anyone down, but it’s been particularly tough on kids and teens. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Claire Nicogossian joined Mighty Mommy to talk about warning signs of stress in teens and offer her expert advice for helping them cope.

Cheryl Butler
11-minute read
Episode #608

We’re nine very long months into the pandemic. Although families have adjusted as best they can, many tweens and teens are still struggling to keep it all together.

A recent study from the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed that long term stress due to the pandemic is especially serious for young people ages 13-17, otherwise known as “Gen Z” teens, and young adults age 18-23, known as “Gen Z” adults. On top of this, colder weather and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can also have a negative impact on mental health and behavior.

Dr. Claire Nicogossian, Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Assistant Professor, and author of the breakthrough new book, Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood joined me to talk about the impact of the pandemic on tweens and teens. Dr. Nicogossian is not only an accomplished psychologist but also mom to four teenage daughters. She explained her concerns.

When you look at the impact of stress on children and youth, you're really looking at what would typically be happening during this time of social, emotional, [and] cognitive development. Adolescents and young adolescents and, and going through puberty and changes already brings a lot of changes physically and emotionally because of their hormones, but also the independence that's happening in their social development. So friends take top priority. Getting together and being social and participating in team sports or other activities and pursuits are really key right now in terms of their overall development. Isolating, having to socially distance, going to school in a hybrid model, or maybe all distance learning creates isolation for our youth and teens. And that is increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and a lot of stress.

 So, we know the stress is real. But what can we do about it? How can we help our teens get through these challenging times? As parents, we want to protect our kids from harmful and stressful situations. But more importantly, we want to offer them helpful tools that can foster resilience and guide them with a positive approach on how to handle a devastating situation such as this pandemic.

Dr. Nicogossian’s top tool for helping our kids navigate the pandemic might surprise you.

4 signs of stress in teenagers to watch for

Watch for sleep pattern changes in your teen

Most of us are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and sad due to the pandemic and that could trigger physical problems. Dr. Nicogossian explained that a change in your child’s sleep pattern is something to monitor closely.

The second thing is you want to look for signs in your children and youth that are disruptions in their day to day normal functioning. What does that mean? Always be on the lookout for changes in sleep. Are they sleeping more? Are they sleeping less? Are they tired all the time for younger children? Are they having nightmares for older children? Are they, restless and can't get to sleep? Children show us what they're experiencing through their behaviors.

Dr. Nicogossian explained that teenagers tend to stay up later, which can mean their exhausted parents go to bed before their teens do. How can you monitor your child's sleep when you're off to sleep before they are?

It's okay to ask and check in and say "How'd you sleep last night? How many hours of sleep did you get?" Because sleep is the foundation for your physical and emotional health. When we're sleep-deprived, we can't access coping skills as well. We may be more reactive versus responsive. So you always want to assess sleep.

Pay attention to your teen's appetite

Dr. Nicogossian also explained that changes in appetite can be a red flag.

You want to look at their appetite, stress and depression and anxiety impacts children's sleep and appetite as well as their activity levels. Are they eating more? Are they eating less? You want to pay attention to that.

Notice when your child is regressing in their responsibilities

Sleep and diet changes aren't the only red flags. Dr. Nicogossian has been noticing an increase of regression in her practice as well.

I've been hearing in my practice, and seeing in my own home, that children or teens who are able to do things they once did all of a sudden seem younger than they are. So now they're not being as responsible. Let's say, they're not being as communicative as they used to be. They're not being as independent as they used to be. That may be a sign that something else is going on. And that can be really confusing for a parent because you think "Well, you've always done this. Why now?" That may be a sign of some stress in a child's life. Children, again, express what's going on through their behavior.

Look for a lack of joy while performing regular activities

One of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic is that kids don't have the same social opportunities. They can’t hang out with their friends. They're missing the daily face-to-face interactions with their peers because of distance and hybrid learning. Many team sports have been curtailed, which removes another outlet for socializing and staying active. Dr. Nicogossian says that parents need to tune in to the serious signs that their child isn't coping with the loss of these activities.

She also warns us to be on the lookout for signs that your teen isn't enjoying things he or she used to.

If you hear your child say things like "I'm not good at anything," "Nobody likes me," "What's the point? This will never be different. I can't imagine the future. I don't want to live anymore." If your child starts saying some of those things—from negative self-talk and self-esteem issues to more direct thoughts of not wanting to live—those are big red flags and you need to call your pediatrician and healthcare provider and get your child assessed and get some support.

If your teen is expressing feelings of hopelessness, joylessness, or not wanting to live anymore, take them seriously. In the U.S., the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a national helpline. Call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year information and treatment referrals.

7 expert tips for managing your teen's stress

Now that you know some signs of stress to look for, how can you help your teenager navigate it? Dr. Nicogossian offered some professional advice.

Take care of yourself so you can take care of your family

Dr. Nicogossian explained that the challenge for parents is to take care of their own needs and mental health first. It reminds me of the airline safety schpiel where the flight attendant urges you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

For parents, we have to take care of ourselves first. We must do that. We need to be in a reasonably stable place managing our own stress. And I talk about that a lot in my book.

For example, people think about anger and a lot of people don't come right out and say "I'm so angry." Usually, they say "I'm frustrated" or "I'm feeling really irritable." So, emotions happen on a continuum and part of sadness, which a lot of us are going through because of loss right now during this pandemic, includes feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion. I see that under the umbrella of sadness or depression. So we as parents first must be taking the most reasonable care possible of ourselves. Otherwise, we're becoming very reactive with our kids. When we take care of ourselves and understand what we're going through, what we need, how we're taking care of ourselves, we can look at our children and we can say "Oh, okay, this isn't defiance. They're not being disrespectful. They are suffering and they're hurting." And these behaviors that I'm observing in my child, while they feel sometimes very much so directed at me, maybe if I step back for a moment, they really are a reaction to the loss and the sadness.

Be a sounding board and safety net

It's important for kids to know that, no matter what, we parents have their backs. By taking care of your own needs, you'll be better able to be there when your child is in distress. I loved what Dr. Nicogossian had to say about treating a child as a friend in distress.

We, as parents, can just take a minute and pause and say to ourselves, if a friend came to me and said the exact same thing that I'm seeing with my child, what advice would I give them? And often that may be the path to figure out what you may need to do for your child, because parenting is so personal. And it can be so intense when children take their frustrations and emotions and put them on mom, put them on dad. They do that because you're the safest person for them.

Children crave the structure and boundaries their parents offer. So remember that when your teen is lashing out or piling their frustrations on you, they're looking for exactly that—someone to offer safety and guidance to help get them back to a calmer place.

Give your teen space to calm down

Offering safety is one thing, but how do you cope when feelings are running hot and your child is lashing out ... maybe at you! Dr. Nicogossian pointed out that humans—both adults and children alike—can't process feelings and problem-solve when they're in the throes of stress and anxiety. She recommends letting your teen know you're there for them and then giving them some time and space to process their feelings before working on the problem.

I always say to my daughters —and encourage clients to say to their children—[that] it is okay to have a feeling. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be upset. It is okay to be sad. It is okay to be worried about the future. But here's what's not okay. It's not okay to take your feelings out on someone and hurt someone. So tell me what you need. How can I help you? Let's create a space where you can decompress for a minute or take a break. And when you're ready, we can come together and problem-solve.

Here's something really important to understand. As a parent, when we become upset, or any human being gets really emotional, there's a tipping point in our biology and physiological functioning where we can't process information. When our heart rate, when our stress levels get so high, we really cannot process new information. So offering a hug, offering some support in problem-solving can actually be more frustrating to the individuals. So it's really important to acknowledge what they're feeling, create a space to say, "I can see you're really hurting right now. What do you need? I'm here for you. And then let's come back together and problem solve so you can feel better."

Keep insisting on boundaries and limits

With such an overwhelming disruption to our lives and daily schedules, it’s easy to throw in the towel and forget about the family rules. Who has the energy to enforce a daily routine when we’re going to school and work sitting at the kitchen table wearing our pajamas? But Dr. Nicogossian reminds parents why structure is so important right now.

I think it's incredibly important to keep a routine and to keep structure. The pandemic has been chronic. It is going on close to a year now. Kids thrive with routine and structure and knowing what is expected of them. Yes, things are hard. Things are challenging. But we also have our day-to-day responsibilities. We have to go to school, we have to go to work, we have to do our chores. We have to get out and get some physical exercise every day. We're contributing in different ways. And so everyone has a role in the family. I’m a huge advocate of holding kids accountable for what they're responsible for because hard times are going to happen throughout their life.

Dr. Nicogossian pointed out that living through the pandemic is actually good practice for life. It has helped all of us learn coping skills and to be more resilient. Having set schedules and expectations, she says, is important for building those coping skills and helping kids learn accountability. She recommends things like weekly family meetings to assign chores that are developmentally appropriate for each child and set expectations around things like screen time. And speaking of screen time ...

Stop focusing on the quantity of your teen's screentime and focus on quality

Even under normal circumstances, managing our kids' screen time has long been a challenge for parents—myself included! But finding a healthy balance between living in the real world and the virtual one can seem almost impossible during a pandemic when there are so many restrictions on how our kids, especially teens, can spend their free time.

Dr. Nicogossian explained that research has shown that kids reach for electronics when they're bored. Of course, the way the pandemic has limited families when it comes to all the activities we used to freely enjoy means that boredom is a frequent complaint for our teens. That's why it's important to monitor screen time, but also to remember that 2020 has changed a lot of the rules, at least for now. For now, forget focusing on the amount of time your teen spends staring at a screen and focus on quality.

I was really encouraged in the spring when the American Academy of Pediatrics came out and did a revamp of screen time. And they said, listen, you know, in ordinary times screen time would be maxed per age. During the pandemic, we have to become more lax about that. So let's put mommy guilt aside for a minute and understand that kids are going to get more screen time, but what we can do is make sure it's quality screen time. And so that's the FaceTime, the interactions with their friends that I think are so important. And also having those conversations with their children and saying, listen, everyone wants to be on the screen, playing a game to distract yourself, but let's find five other activities that you can also add in some more broad in those activities as well.

Dr. Nicogossian also recommends keeping an eye on your teen's cell phone and other electronics. She suggests doing an audit every now and then to find out what apps they're using, what games they're playing, and especially, who they're talking to.

This is something I'm seeing showing up in my practice. Parents find out their kids are chatting with strangers and talking to people on these games. So you really also want to encourage that if they're going to be playing games, that you know who they're speaking to. Have your kids in a common area when they're doing these activities so you can monitor what is going on.

Some video games, cell phone games, video apps like TikTok, and other apps and platforms you might not expect have chat functions. Ask your teen if they can talk to other people or players on the apps they use. If you suspect they're trying to hide an app's chat capabilities from you, do a little research yourself.

Communicate often about your child's social needs

Every child has different social needs. Dr. Nicogossian recommends asking your child, "What is it that you need with your friends? Do you have any ideas about what we can do to stay connected to our friends?"

She also recommends normalizing that the loss of social connection is real for them—don't dismiss their reality! Developmentally, relationships are important to tweens and teens. Make sure you offer ways for them to stay connected with friends. You can schedule weekly FaceTime chats, or organize events when they do crafts together over video chat. She suggested that some teens might like to pick up skills like getting old-fashioned and writing letters back and forth like pen pals. Fun!

Let go of the guilt

Even under normal circumstances, parenting can be challenging. But navigating a pandemic? That can have even the most effective parents questioning their skills. Dr. Nicogossian encourages parents to let go of guilt and cut themselves some slack.

Don't be so hard on yourself. You cannot protect your child from everything. And this is an opportunity for them to learn how to cope. This is an opportunity for them to learn how to get through trying times. And you'll be referencing this as a parent for years to come. "Do you remember when we got through hard times?" And I want to encourage parents just to know that you were doing your very best, and this is not the time to feel perfect. This is not a time to feel guilt. This is not the time to put extra stress on an already incredibly stressful situation. Parents really are so loved and cherished by their children, and children know that you're doing the best you can.

Thank you, Claire, for being such a compassionate and informative guest! For more information about Dr. Nicogossian and her work, visit momswellbeing.com

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.