Protecting Our Teens’ Mental Health in These Stressful Times

African american girl and her parents at reception of psychologist, kid sharing her feelings with doctor

I am impressed at articles recently published by UNICEF to encourage teenagers to practice self-care to protect their mental health and to give the parents and caregivers of teenagers tips for ways they can contribute to promoting their mental health. Even in more normal times teens can struggle with anxiety, poor self-image, feelings of isolation and loneliness. Especially during these hard times, it is wise to pause and become more intentional to proactively nurture teenagers. Also, collectively we need to raise awareness of some of the struggles teens are facing these days and to reach out to them with love and compassion.

UNICEF recommendations for protecting mental health if you are an adolescent: 

Mom and daughter talking and smiling while lying on bed at home
  1. Recognize that your anxiety is completely normal. You are not the only one feeling anxious and there are many legitimate reasons for this anxiety. Sometimes just knowing there isn’t anything weird about a feeling can help relieve anxiety and the concern that there is something wrong with you for feeling that way.
  2. Create distractions. Change your focus from what creates anxiety to what is enjoyable, interesting or mentally stimulating. Do homework, watch at favorite movie or do some interesting reading and work to find balance in what you do each day. Make a list of things you want to accomplish to give yourself some structure and goals you can reach.
  3. Find new ways to connect with your friends. Using technology and social media can give options for knowing you’re not alone. Just be cautious to not overdo it because that can increase anxiety. Also, be on alert for cyber bullying or other messages that reduce a sense of positive, nurturing connection. Just because somebody writes something on social media doesn’t make it necessarily true.
  4. Focus on you. Think about things you always wanted to do and now have the time to indulge in exploring them. It is not selfish to practice healthy self-care, as long as it’s not the only thing you do or it hurts someone else.
  5. Feel your feelings. Because there are so many losses, disappointments, frustrations and mixed messages out there, it is normal to experience sadness, agitation and confusion. “When it comes to having a painful feeling, the only way out is through,” the article wisely states.
  6. Be kind to yourself and others. Don’t hesitate to seek help if you are experiencing extreme feelings of anxiety or depression, if you are being bullied in any way or are experiencing rejection or abandonment by people important to you. Appreciate that reaching out to support and nurture others is a wonderful way to increase positive feelings in yourself.
Multiracial friends taking selfie with closed face masks during Covid second wave outbreak - New normal concept.

UNICEF recommendations to parents and caregivers of teenagers:

  1. Encourage teens to share their feelings. Check in with them, remind them that you are there for them no matter what. Respond with respect and appreciation when they do share some of their struggles, and be mindful not to be overly critical when teenagers express themselves with normal, rebellious behaviors.
  2. Take the time to support them. While teenagers need opportunities to experience their growing sense of independence, find activities you can share together like household chores, caring for pets, making meals. Remember that it can be challenging to focus on others when you yourself may be experiencing your own levels of anxiety, fear, frustration and confusion.
  3. Work through conflict together. Take the time to listen to your teenager’s perspectives. You can accept that your teenager has a different viewpoint even as you know something they are saying or believing is unrealistic or incorrect, and at the same time can insist that no one in your household do anything that is hurtful or disrespectful of others. A great line to remember is, “That may be, however…” which both acknowledges what your teenager believes is true and gives you the platform for maintaining family rules.
  4. Care for yourself. It takes a lot of energy to care for family members, especially adolescents who can be very challenging at times. The very things that are being recommended by UNICEF in their articles to offer support to teenagers can be adapted to offer support to you as a caregiver. Notice that when you care for yourself you are also modeling self-care to your teenager. Don’t look to your teenager or any of your children to take responsibility for caring for you beyond being appropriately respectful, compassionate and kind.

Many of these suggestions can seem like basic common-sense behaviors. At the same time, we all need and deserve to consider how important protecting mental health is in these times of additional stress and anxiety. We can pay extra attention to the needs of our more vulnerable teenagers who are navigating an already stressful time of life even as we too appreciate that we are also navigating a world that seems turned upside down. Believing we will all get through this, and embracing hope for a better future, is one more essential element for protecting our mental health the mental health of those we care for. Just knowing we are not alone can offer the comfort of sharing what life is all about these days.

  Invitation for Reflection:

  1. How would you describe the state of the mental health of the children and teenagers in your life?
  2. What are some of the specific ways you can apply the information shared by UNICEF?
  3. What can you do to creatively address the many mental health concerns we all are living through these days?
  4. How can you connect with others who can support you in these efforts while giving you opportunities to support them?

Diane Wagnehals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute