It has been more than three months since Oklahoma students have been inside a physical classroom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the continued spread of the virus, many students will be starting their 2020-2021 academic year online, disrupting the hope of a return to normalcy in the fall.
Mental health awareness is on the rise as Americans try to cope with social distancing restrictions and closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from July, 53% of U.S. adults said the worry and stress related to the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.
For teens and young adults, many have missed out on critical social events and milestones such as spring sports, proms and in-person graduations.
“It’s very difficult and new territory for parents to navigate, but it’s very important to touch base with your kiddos and see how they are really feeling about everything,” said Allie Friesen, Integris executive director of the behavior health clinical program and board certified, licensed professional counselor.
Amid those losses, adults can help best by acknowledging the feelings that coincide with the pandemic, said Tayler Lynsey Magby, a peer health leader on the interpersonal violence committee at the University of Central Oklahoma.
"I think the biggest thing that parents can do is acknowledge how their students are feeling because, obviously, this is not something anybody has ever gone through before," Magby said.
Adults can play a major positive role in helping them navigate this unique moment in history.
"I'm a mom of a teenager who missed out on a lot of these things, so I get it from both sides," said Julia Reed, LCSW, the University of Central Oklahoma’s center for counseling and well-being senior director. "There are a lot of losses that are typically connected with rituals that we have, whether that's graduation or now going back in being a first-time freshman. I mean everything is different now in the way that we're doing these regulations."
One of the most important ways parents can help their children is to show and model the ways they are dealing with their own emotions during the pandemic. Teenagers are still paying attention to how their parents are handling things, Friesen said.
“Just being honest with them and showing them how they can be resilient and modeling that behavior makes a huge difference and makes our kids feel more confident that they, too, can handle it. What this situation comes down to, from an emotional standpoint, is making sure we teach our teens how to be resilient, because that’s going to help them throughout the rest of their lives,” Friesen said. “That’s a huge goal in parenting in general, but when you throw a crisis like COVID on top of it, it gives us a huge opportunity to really model that resilience and help them develop that so that they can be well-adjusted, successful people.”
Establishing a routine
While back to school plans continue to be evaluated, Friesen said it is important for families to maintain a sense of routine. She suggested trying to keep breakfast at the same time, keep homework time at the same time every day or keep their teenager’s private time when they are in their room and talking to their friends.
“It is going to take some getting used to and it’s going to be a learning curve for all parts of the family system. But helping keeping things consistent even if they are different, … we are better able to deal with those negative things that may come up and things that might have been taken away from us,” Friesen said.
Friesen said how they respond to this new normal will look different for each child, and parents can help them by identifying emotions of disappointment and sadness related to this loss.
“You’ll want to identify and acknowledge their emotion and kind of experience that with them. Let them know, ‘hey, I’m disappointed, too,’” Friesen said. “The important thing is that you don’t let them kind of hang around and swim around in that sadness, and really help them look forward to the future.”
For some, the signs of stress with children and teens may manifest itself as blatant behavior changes such as throwing tantrums, big appetite changes, drastic changes in sleep patterns, not enjoying activities they normally enjoy, drastic shift in interests and their typical routines and changes in ways they communicate with you.
One of the ways adults can help their teens is by normalizing the anxiety that might be felt during the pandemic.
“Let’s be honest, I don’t think there many of us that are not anxious about this situation right now. Encouraging a specific time in the classroom or at home, (maybe) during dinner, to have that platform for them to address that anxiety and have things incorporated in your day,” Friesen said.
Friesen suggested parents promote physical exercise or whatever their child loves to do whenever their teen might be feeling sad. Due to hormonal changes, getting physical exercise is huge for teenagers to allow them to get energy out.
Teens and young adults can also find ways to virtually support causes or volunteer for projects with their friends online.
“Finding a purpose whenever you really start feeling stressed and really isolated, a lot of that comes from feeling like we can’t control anything that is happening in the world. I think there is a lot of that across all age groups right now. We just want to regain that sense of control over our lives, so participating in something that is bigger than yourself, whether it is a church group or a volunteer group, something that is tangible and you can see that you have accomplished, can really help get back that sense of control,” Friesen said.
Socializing during the pandemic
As many districts around the state consider an online-start to the academic year, Friesen said it is important to remind children why it is necessary to continue practicing social distancing and other virus prevention measures and let them get creative when it comes to how they can safely hangout with friends.
“Try to do things you would normally do but just try to look at them more through the virtual lens or let’s get together in the parking lot and we all tailgate but we all keep our safe distance. You’re still getting to see each and get that social engagement, because that is really important, especially with our teenagers, but making sure you are doing it in a safe way. If your kid suggests something like this, just make sure that they really understand why it’s important to keep the social distance because it can be really easy before we reach that adult age to just dismiss those things,” Friesen said. “Making sure they understand and have that reminder when they get to that get-together, I’m not going to give my friend a hug or give them a high-five because I want keep my grandma or grandpa safe, whoever that person is.”
While in-person interactions remain limited, Friesen said it’s important for parents to pay attention to their teen’s non-verbal cues, such as sighing or throwing down their phone, whenever they are scrolling through social media.
“Pay attention to some of the non-verbal cues because that can be a really good indicator of what they are looking at or if they are getting sad, looking at what they used to be able to do, or something negative, posts about all the craziness that is happening in the world. Enquire with them, talk to them about what they look at and use those parental controls as much as you can,” she said.
While parents may want to maintain a balance of screen time and their teen, Friesen said it is OK to be more flexible than you were before.
“I would advise parents to still try to track and kind of monitor how much time they are spending on social media. It’s hard to monitor every swipe and how long they’re scrolling on Instagram or Snapchat, whatever it may be, but really monitoring how much screen time they are having. It’s probably going to be more than it was before because we are all at home,” she said.
Friesen did suggest trying to limit screen time before bed so they can have more quality sleep.
“I know that is so much easier said than done but if our teens aren’t getting the appropriate amount or the quality amount of sleep, which we know research shows us being on our screens before bed interferes with that sleep quality and getting the proper cycles of sleep that we need. They will have a harder time learning information and they will have a harder time dealing with these emotions that they are trying to process through. Our brain really needs that quality sleep for us to effectively process all that emotional information. If you really struggle with monitoring screen time, if nothing else, right before bed, really try to veto the screen time,” she said.
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If you or anyone you know may be struggling with depression or suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741-741 to speak with a crisis counselor.
Griffin Communications’ Director of Digital Content Ryan Welton contributed to this report.
The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. Griffin Communications is part of the collaborative, and this story is part of that effort.