Mental health challenges among adolescents and teenagers have intensified during the pandemic. One study reported that teen depression rose 50%, anxiety disorders increased 67.5%, and self-harm behaviors spiked by 334%. Incidences of suicidal thinking and behavior are up by 25% or more from similar periods according to a study regarding young patients coming into the emergency room. In another comprehensive study of the impact of COVID on 13- to 22-year-olds, there were sharp spikes from pre-pandemic 2019 to 2020 in a range of psychological conditions including major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, self-harm, substance abuse, overdoses, OCD, ADHD, and tic disorders.
In the past couple of weeks kids are returning to school on a full-time basis. I have heard increased anxiety about their fears of contracting COVID and the physical discomfort of being at school because of having to wear masks all day and the plexiglass partitions on their desks.
One teen described having panic attacks because of feeling claustrophobic. It was explained that the partition takes up most of the desk and there is limited room for them to comfortably get close to their paper, write, and move around. They also cannot fit their notebook and laptop which they need for effective notetaking.
Students also complained about not being able to effectively hear their teachers and actively participate in class discussions, as well as not being able to see the white boards or teacher because of the partitions. If that is not anxiety provoking enough, the reflection of the plexiglass causes them to be distracted and they find themselves feeling disgusted because of the accumulated dust and food particles on the glass that is surrounding them. Just when most kids were enthusiastic about returning to school, they must contend with further discomforts.
Kids Are Adapting Maladaptive Coping Skills
Teens are smoking pot, losing and gaining weight, and are engaging in self-destructive behaviors because of distress and boredom due to the pandemic. Chronic stress can additionally impact teen’s mood. The cortisol that gets released during the stress response, can lead to a reduction of “feel-good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin. It can eventually lead to unstable moods (impacting motivation, level of anger and anxiety, etc.), somatic complaints (abdominal pain, headaches, muscular pain, etc.) and disrupted sleeping and eating patterns.
While good stress promotes a positive challenge and generally motivates them, promotes well-being, and enhances performance; bad stress induces hopelessness and can make kids physically sick, weaken their immune system, and impair their performance. A cycle of avoidance or distraction strategies often get instilled to cope with the bad stress. Kids negatively cope by drinking alcohol and using substances, using food to gain control, underachieving, socially isolating, self-harming, becoming addicted to social media and gaming, etc.
Why Do Emotions and Emotional Intelligence (EI) Matter?
Emotions unequivocally matter. According to research, they are known to contribute to: (1) attention, memory, and learning, (2) decision making, (3) the quality of relationships, (4) physical and mental health, and (5) performance and creativity. There is a plethora of studies that support the need to integrate social emotional learning in schools and at home because of the long-standing positive benefits.[i] There is a plethora of studies that support the need to integrate social emotional learning (SEL) in schools and at home because of the long-standing positive benefits.
Some evidence-based school SEL and mindfulness curriculum that can be advocated for include RULER, CASEL, Second Step, Mind Up, School Connect, Choose Love, and Mindful Life Project. There is a comprehensive list of SEL learning curriculum and leading SEL programs.
How Parents Can Nurture EI
Many parents often do not feel comfortable and do not know how to talk about and teach their children about their health and mental health. It is difficult to talk about and explain, and in many instances, parents are challenged with their own communication because dialogue was not entertained or encouraged in their own families of origin.
Role modeling for children by facilitating discussion around feelings, and making connections between children’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is essential. Facilitating an emotional climate is also critical. A parent cannot just infuse skills, they need to maintain a climate that is conducive for emotions to be expressed, accepted, and effectively worked through.
The way to teach EI is to focus on: (a) Recognizing emotion; (b) Understanding emotion – i.e., knowing the causes and consequences of emotions; (c) Expressing emotion – i.e., knowing how and when to express emotions with different people and in multiple contexts and under varied influences such as personality, gender, power, social norms (family/work), and race, ethnicity, and culture, and (d) Regulating emotion – i.e., the thoughts and actions we use to prevent, reduce, initiate, maintain or enhance emotions.
Here are some diagrams and exercises helping to make the connection for children regarding understanding and identifying their emotions:
How Do You Feel Today? Feeling Inventory, and developing coping cards (when I ________, I feel ______ (also rate intensity of feeling from 1 (low) to 5 (high) because ________. What I need is _________________________). See examples of Activities To Teach Kids About Emotions.
Some other messages to convey regarding understanding and conveying emotions includes that:
- There are genetic or biological components to mental health and mental illness, the negative consequences can be prevented and minimized with support and intervention.
- You often cannot detect and “see” mental illness and it is not caused by doing something wrong or because of how intelligent someone is. It is caused by a mix of what’s going on inside their body and what’s happening around them (here are short video explaining What Is Mental Illness? and Your Brain On Stress and Anxiety.
- Mental health disorders impact all people, irrespective of their gender, race, religion, setting they live in, etc. There are genetic and environmental factors that make people more vulnerable for them. For example, regarding academic achievement, anxiety can show up differently. Someone can be overly perfectionistic, avoid class participation because of fear of embarrassment, or panic while test taking because of fear of failure.
- There is not a one-size-fits-all method for assessing and treating mental illness because they present variably from one person to the other (i.e., frequency, intensity, duration, etc.).
- There are inherent labels and stigmas attached to mental health disorders. One can get help respectfully and confidentially.
- Like health issues, mental health issues often can’t be easily recognized or noticed so there may be the expectations to “get over it” or “move forward” despite how a person’s feeling. If we would treat mental health issues like health issues we would hopefully be more compassionate and empathetic to those experiencing them.
- Negative emotions/feelings such as sadness, disappointment, frustration, anger, guilt, etc. are most often not dangerous, it’s just uncomfortable. The power is being comfortable with being uncomfortable and being able to be with those feelings, rather than distract or avoid them (for more see my blogs Strengthen Your Frustration Muscle and Gaining Emotional Intelligence by Being In The “Yuck.”
- There are two sources of stress — external triggers (e.g., an argument with a parent or receiving a poor grade) and internal triggers (placing high expectations on yourself or experiencing negative/self-deprecating self-talk). Both need to be addressed.
- Stress and sadness (and other negative emotions) are typical. Anxiety and depression can reach such heightened states that intervention is necessary. With the right treatment, one can get the effective help they need.
- Parents and kids should be aware of the warning signs which can indicate the need to seek professional help (e.g., very sad or hopeless, socially isolates, or changes in eating or sleeping habits). See a comprehensive list.
- Our thoughts lead to feelings which then impact our behavior. It is important to recognize and identify our thoughts and feelings so that we can be mindful to react and act on behalf of our core values, our best selves, and who we want to be (for more see my Psychology Today blog 6 Tips for Making Difficult Decisions).
- Psychological self-care needs to focus on sleep, stress management, self-confidence/self-compassion, connected relationships, physical activity/exercise, and nutrition.
- Compartmentalizing and problem-solving skills are essential to help break down tasks to reduce stress and pressure and additionally helps with organization and time management.
- Expressing emotion and communicating in an emotionally connected and relational manner is essential to role model to children. This includes familial communication (i.e., among partners, toward siblings, etc.), communication to friends, to others, and about others.
- Having good mental health is not just a matter of just “thinking happy thoughts” or “getting the thoughts out of your head.” We are taught to believe that we can make that happen. The thoughts tend to come back and often can come back even more intensely. This facilitates a cycle of disappointment, frustration, and negative self-deprecating messages (for more see my Psychology Today blog on Stop Preaching Happiness, Gratitude & Positive Affirmations).
- What is helpful is learning the value of all emotions and how they can be helpful, how to label emotions, connect them to feelings that are getting evoked, test out the thoughts or initiate problem solving, and act in accordance with our core values.
Mindfulness, meditation, stress management, and other present moment activities and exercises helps with mood and emotional regulation (for more see my Psychology Today blogs A Letter to Your Anxious Mind and The Power of Self-Love and Self-Compassion. Also Going From Autopilot to Mindfulness and Dr Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise. For books see Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child and The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind).
Educating kids on emotions and acquiring emotional intelligence is just as important as teaching your child about their health, safety, and moral compass. Acquiring emotional intelligence and understanding the mind-body connection can no longer be denied or overlooked. Our children’s future is dependent on it.
There are no excuses, if you do not know how to teach it, attempt to learn it. If you are uncomfortable teaching it, then work toward learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let us work together to introduce, develop, and instill emotional intelligence. We can be conduits for enhancing the lives of the children we so dearly love and cherish.
Here is a Candlelight Guided Meditation for Tapping Into Emotions: