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Helping teens cope with feelings of isolation

By Jennifer Bordner, LPC, BCC

Almost everyone has experienced a sense of isolation since the COVID-19 pandemic began over a year ago.

Having to change everyday routines and limit social interactions, has taken a toll on just about everybody’s mental health.

And that is particularly true for teens, who have experienced increased rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse since the start of the pandemic.

In fact, mental health claims among the 13-to-18 age group were up 20% toward the end of last year compared to the prior year, according to a recent study conducted by FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit organization that collects data for and manages the nation’s largest database of privately billed health insurance claims.

If you are concerned that your teenager is having trouble coping with the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, help is available.

The Adolescent Program at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers intensive outpatient programs focused on the specific needs of adolescents who are experiencing depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other behavioral health issues.

Bound to Families, Isolated from Peers

When children enter their adolescent years they typically start to pull away from their parents and siblings in a show of independence and use school and other activities, such as sports and clubs, as their social outlets.

However, with those outlets largely eliminated or drastically changed because of the virus, teens have been put in a position where they are bound to their families and isolated from their peers.

This forced isolation can result in depression and anxiety, and for some, these emotions may last well beyond the pandemic. In addition, for adolescents who are already dealing with anxiety, the isolation can make it even harder to overcome.

Moreover, just like adults, teenagers are feeling a sense of grief and loss, which can take many shapes – from the death of a loved one to losses such as the ability to meet friends at the movie theater or go to the senior prom.

Recognize the Signs

As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, signs of stress and mental health challenges are not the same for every teenager, but there are some common symptoms:

  • Changes in mood, such as ongoing irritability, feelings of hopelessness or rage, and frequent conflicts with friends and family.
  • Changes in behavior, such as stepping back from personal relationships. For example, if your normally social teen shows little interest in texting or videochatting with their friends, this might be cause for concern.
  • A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities. While it may be hard to do group activities, loss of interest in other activities such as going for bike rides or playing an instrument, may be a red flag.
  • A hard time falling or staying asleep, or starting to sleep all the time.
  • Changes in appetite, weight or eating patterns, such as never being hungry or eating all the time.
  • Problems with memory, thinking or concentration.
  • Less interest in schoolwork and a drop in academic effort. Understandably, many teenagers are experiencing fatigue associated with virtual learning, but a drastic drop in grades should not be ignored.
  • Changes in appearance, such as lack of personal hygiene. Wearing sweatpants more often these days is understandable, but teens should still shower, brush their teeth, and comb their hair.

What Parents Can Do

There are certain things parents can do to help alleviate some of the sense of isolation their children are feeling, which will help them now and in the future.

  • Encourage teens to connect virtually with friends through online platforms. This can help reinforce that they are not alone. While spending time in their room playing interactive video games may seem like a negative behavior at other times, it can be a good now because it allows for social interaction.
  • Make time for family activities. Have regular game nights or spend time outdoors together on a family bike ride or walk around the neighborhood.
  • Help teens focus on gratitude, positive thinking, and goal setting, which can help them face continued uncertainty.
  • Encourage mindfulness practices like using calming apps or quiet time to help regulate emotions.
  • Keep lines of communication open with your child. It may take time for your teen to open up about their emotions, but knowing they can talk to you will help them feel supported.
  • Maintain structure. As hard as it may be, maintaining structure is even more important for adolescents during these uncertain times. Parents should be mindful that their teens are maintaining a healthy sleep, eating, and exercise routines.
  • Try to set a good example. Staying positive and setting a good example can be especially difficult when you’re dealing with your own stress, but parents can set the tone at home by modeling healthy coping skills and staying upbeat about the future.

If you feel your child is having a difficult time as a result of isolation, a therapist can help.

At Princeton House Behavioral Health, evidence-based treatment for adolescents includes a comprehensive evaluation by a board certified psychiatrist, medication evaluation and management as needed, group and individual therapy, family education groups, and expressive therapies like art and music.

Care is available through telehealth, which enables teens to participate in therapy to work through their feelings and learn healthy coping strategies from their own home.

For more information about Princeton House Behavioral Health’s adolescent services, visit www.princetonhouse.org or call 888-437-1610.

Jennifer Bordner, LPC, BCC, is a licensed professional counselor and the child and adolescent clinical manager at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health’s Hamilton site.

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