For a year, we’ve worried about our kids’ mental health as they cope with social isolation, remote school, health anxiety. Now, a return to in-person classrooms and the resumption of some kind of normal life carries fresh concerns: How will kids actually re-acclimate? We might be excited for our kids to go back to school (and get out of the house!) — but are they ready?
The transition is especially worrisome for adolescents and teens, who are adjusting to puberty and have been grappling with normal issues relating to social development in an abnormal bubble.
“One should expect it will be an adjustment, even if parents are really excited about their kids going back. Kids are going to feel — at the very least — mixed emotions. Kids are really nervous about seeing classmates they haven’t seen in a full year; now they have acne, braces, weight gain, or are just more self-conscious,” says Chessie Shaw, a middle school counselor in Somerville.
According to new data from Boston-based Common Sense Media, nearly 4 in 10 teens and young adults report symptoms of moderate to severe depression, up 25 percent from two years ago. The CDC reports that adolescents ages 12-17 accounted for the largest proportion of children’s mental-health-related emergency visits during 2020. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for kids ages 12 to 18.
Parents I heard from for this piece reported frustration with homework; social isolation; the sense of missing out on rites of passage like the Prom; issues around weight gain and self-image; and intense anxiety about returning to school and fitting in.
“As much as we’re hearing kids say that they want this to be over and can’t wait, we’re also hearing a lot of anxiety about what the future holds. How do we conduct daily business in a post-COVID world?” says Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, a clinical psychologist with Massachusetts General Hospital who specializes in adolescents and teens. “There’s this worry about a performative aspect. How will I perform, and how will I be perceived? But there’s also the anxiety of not knowing what [a return] will be like, what it will look like, and what it will feel like.”
Here are five things to keep in mind as we teeter on the edge of normalcy.
Grief is real and persistent. Kids are still mourning a missing year, and parents need to treat that grief as real.
“We’ve been asking youth to make a ton of accommodations and suffered losses. When we think of losses, we often think about death and something ‘serious.’ But losing Prom, losing your sports season, losing your concert season, and physical contact with friends and coaches” is just as real, Jenkins says. Don’t assume that they’ll snap out of it as soon as they go back to school.
Be open about your own anxiety or trepidation. “Teenagers don’t want to talk to their parents or tell them exactly how they’re feeling. So talk casually,” says Shaw. Instead of probing them about their feelings, work it into casual conversation: Talk about how you’ve heard that many kids are nervous about going back to school — or share how you might be feeling anxious about returning to your own daily grind. “Try to depersonalize the issue for your child,” she says.
Pre-process with your child. Lots of things could have changed over the course of the year. Social groups have morphed and shifted. Kids who once loved video games now might want to play basketball. Life won’t look the same.
Jenkins recommends “pre-processing,” which is basically the opposite of a post-event debrief. Sit down with your child and discuss their thoughts, misconceptions, or fears relating to returning to school. Ask about what they’re excited or fearful about. Talk about what their new schedule will look like: Will they return to sports? Go back to music lessons? Do they even want to? Interests can evolve over the course of a year, so check in before plunging back into your old routine.
“Offer a general roadmap for potential outcomes so they can better navigate the situation,” he says.
Lower the bar. Think about how drained you’ll be during your first full week back to work, making small talk with coworkers or sitting in traffic. Your kids will be tired, too.
“Go gradually. Think about what would be a low bar to start at and then go ten percent lower. That way, you reduce the activation energy that it takes to get started and reintroduce yourself to the habit or routine,” Jenkins says. “Kids need to be able to build the physical and emotional and social stamina and endurance to weather a full day of practice and a full day of in school. People will judge them on previous competency; how well they performed pre-pandemic. We need to wipe the scoreboard clean and start over again. Give them grace and compassion and the ability to really allow themselves to get readjusted — or else anxiety and negative self-talk will increase.”
Be attuned to warning signs. Jenkins says that teen suicide doesn’t get enough media attention, and in the rush to resume our old routines, we might overlook danger signs.
“Suicide rates were high during the pandemic because people were isolated and removed from their supports that kept them persevering. People assume because the world has reopened that those resources and foundations will now still be available and provide the same sustenance, and that might not be the case. We need to be watchful during the transition,” he says.
Be alert to any deviation in behavior — even if it’s a sudden increase in energy or euphoria, which can be misconstrued. Maintain multiple points of reference in your child’s life.
“Establish good relationships with people they love and care about: aunts, uncles, older cousins, coaches, mentors,” Jenkins says, especially since teenagers might not want to open up to parents.
If you’re worried about your child, don’t hesitate to go to your local emergency room. For longer-term help, Jenkins recommends investigating group therapy practices that have multiple clinicians and therefore more availability.
Most of all, trust your intuition. “If you feel like there’s something going on, bring [your child] to the ER or call your pediatrician. You don’t want to assume your kid’s OK when they’re not. I’d rather you assume they’re not OK and they are,” Jenkins says.
For suicide resources in Massachusetts, visit www.mass.gov/suicide-prevention-program.
A Samaritans 24-seven crisis helpline can be reached by calling or texting 877-870-4673. People experiencing a crisis can call also the Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, or the Crisis Text Line: Text CRISIS to 741741.