Teenagers. It’s a sentiment many parents use when they can’t explain new moods or behaviors their kids display as they grow more independent. Understanding the root cause of these changes can be challenging, but Laura Gerak, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital says if parents look for triggers, they may be able to help teens navigate their emotions.
“Typically kids or teens experience moods differently than adults for a variety of reasons – physical or hormonal, developmental and environmental factors – however this year there could be a common theme for their moods related to the complete disruption of COVID-19 in their everyday lives,” said Dr. Gerak. “If teens seem more moody or agitated than normal, parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘I noticed a change in you this week,’ or ‘I just want to check in with you.’ Teens need to feel supported by parents, not just criticized, because they may or may not have words to describe what they are experiencing or they may think they’re acting fine.”
To help fuel conversations with your teen, look for what’s triggering their new behavior or disposition.
Change of season
Some people experience a seasonal pattern of depression, known as seasonal affective disorder in adults. Though teens don’t typically meet the full criteria for this disorder, they can still experience increased symptoms of sleep/appetite disruption, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, depressed mood, agitation or isolation.
“In the winter, with the lack of sunshine (and vitamin D) and being indoors more, we may notice feelings of extreme isolation, moodiness or irritability in teens,” said Dr. Gerak. “Since kids have already experienced some sort of remote isolation because of COVID-19, an accumulation of these feelings can appear as depression or hopelessness.”
Talking with your teen about what you’re observing and finding ways to offset isolation can help. Dr. Gerak suggests eating a meal together regularly, having frequent virtual calls with friends and family or trying activities like games, trivia nights or outdoor scavenger hunts to give teens something to look forward to doing and to keep them active.
A more obvious trigger can be seen if a teen’s parents get a divorce, a friend passed away or a break up with a significant other. These types of situations can bring feelings of sadness, anger and guilt for teenagers.
Encourage teenagers to talk with a person they trust about their sadness, but parents should also find ways to come along side their teen to offer support so they know they’re not alone.
“Listen to your teen’s experience and explore it, going over all the possibilities, rather than telling her how to feel or trying to ‘fix it’ for her,” said Dr. Gerak. “Reassure your teen she has the tools to get through the situation and that you’re there to help her process the complexity of feelings she may be experiencing.”
Change in circumstances
As we get older, our feelings about situations can change, bringing feelings of sadness or uncertainty at times. It might be as simple as not feeling as excited for vacation or birthdays but, this year, it could be feelings of isolation or anxiety from spending so much time indoors due to COVID-19.
Try to brainstorm fun activities with your teens to help them address feelings of sadness. If they only want to talk about what they can’t do – start there.
“Make a list of everything they can’t do and then say let’s be creative and try to come up with a list of new or different things to try. It may not look quite the same but, by working together to figure out what’s doable, it can lead to a spark in their emotions,” added Dr. Gerak.
Volunteering or giving back is also a great way to help teens feel better about their own situation.
“Giving teens an opportunity to think outside of themselves – by volunteering their time or resources – can wake up those positive feelings they need,” added Dr. Gerak.
While social media has allowed teens to connect with others during the pandemic, it can also highlight only what people want others to see. These ‘perfect’ images can cause teens to compare themselves to others and wonder what’s wrong with them if they don’t line up.
“It’s a challenge to access that part (social media) of your teenager’s life, but it’s important to keep an open dialogue about it to understand what your teen is seeing or feeling,” said Dr. Gerak. “Sorting through the often unrealistic things they see and hear on social media together can help.”
If you notice your teen appears sad or angrier than usual, has changes in appetite or motivation, start a conversation with her. Adolescent health practitioners, primary care providers, school guidance counselors and church community leaders are some of the great resources parents can call on when trying to help their teen navigate emotions and support their mental well-being.