How to Help Teens Feel Less Lonely During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has uniquely impacted teens and young adults by physically distancing them from the very touch points that light up normal adolescent development. These include school, friendships, romantic relationships, job opportunities and, notably, time away from parents or guardians.

Each of these touch points helps young people to develop independence and form their identity, which are key tasks of adolescence. Not surprisingly, one of the top back-to-school concerns parents ask me about, as a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist, is how to balance protecting teens’ physical health by adhering to social distancing measures, while also supporting their mental health and social-emotional development.

Digging into this question, parents and teens point to the distressing experience of loneliness and isolation felt during this pandemic. In fact, surveys of youth find that 30% to 60% of teens and young adults are reporting increased loneliness. The abrupt end to the spring in-person school semester, the rolling stay-at-home orders, the experience of being a “quaran-teen” and the continued social distancing measures have separated teens from their usual social lives and connections. Parents have born witness to this in their homes, often seeing their teens struggle with remote learning and the ongoing loss of peer connections.

[READ: Coping With Anxiety and Depression During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

Now, as we enter a new school year, with all the re-opening confusion and seemingly no end in sight to the pandemic, more and more parents are asking how to best support lonely teens.

This is an important question and a topic that clinicians and educators ought to address with families, even if they’re not specifically asked.

A recent systematic review analyzed more than 60 prior studies on the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of healthy children and adolescents. It found that, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, possibly anxiety disorders and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder. Notably, the longer the period of isolation, the greater the mental health impacts. Previous studies have also shown loneliness is associated with social anxiety disorder in teens and even physical health effects later in life.

With all the associated complications of loneliness, it’s important to consider what exactly loneliness is and how we, as caregivers, can mitigate its effects.

Loneliness is the discomfort with having an unmet social need, be it actual connection to others, how one feels about their connections with others or even a sense of connection to self. Here are some strategies that can help teens feel less lonely and more connected through this pandemic.

Explore ways for teens to increase outward connections.

Relax the pre-pandemic screen time limits and strike a balance that’s individualized for your teen. Focus on quality (not quantity) of two-way, interactive connections. For example, educational screen time shouldn’t be “counted” as screen time in the same way it might have been before the pandemic. Involve teens in finding creative ways to use technology to add connections, which will help them avoid feelings of FOMO.

When it’s safe, and with proper social-distancing measures in place, consider regular in-person contact with peers. This could mean connecting with neighbors, relatives or classmates. One-on-one time with an adult is an evidence-based way to not only increase connection, but also resilience.

Feeling part of group activities, such as family projects, activism work, school/faith-based community activities and employment, can improve feelings of connection to others. It can also provide social reward, so be sure to look for school- or community-based opportunities for your teens this fall.

[READ: Coronavirus Talking Points for Parents: Discussing the Pandemic With Kids.]

Explore ways for teens to increase connections with self.

This means work that adds meaning and purpose to their days. It will help combat feelings of loneliness by offering a sense of accomplishment and boosting teens’ self-esteem. Help your teen to find a new creative outlet or learn a new skill, of work toward a small attainable personal goal or a family goal.

Supporting a social justice cause or engaging in civic engagement efforts (like voter registration drives) can help add purpose and drive. That’s also true for caring for a pet, and in fact, pet adoptions have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Snuggling with a pet is notable for increasing those magical feelings of reward.

Explore ways for teens to reflect on their feelings of connection.

Sometimes the opportunities for connections are there, but thoughts and feelings get in the way. It could be pandemic-fatigue, Zoom-fatigue or just overload of stress that presents as roadblocks to connecting with others. It could be a pre-existing mental health condition like social anxiety disorder and/or depression, or even pandemic-associated grief.

Mindfulness activities like meditation, yoga and creative arts help center teens. For back-to-school, facilitating connections with teachers and coaches in the school community is important. Teachers are a wonderful resource, and supporting teens so they feel comfortable contacting their teachers independently will help them build critical communication skills. Looking to the future and sharing dreams of post-pandemic social plans may also be uplifting.

[Read: Seattle Children’s CEO: Partnering to Protect Kids in a Pandemic.]

When negative thoughts and distressed feelings feel out of balance, parents are encouraged to discuss this with their pediatricians or mental health teams. Asking for help should be declared as a sign of strength, and teens benefit from parents around them modeling this behavior. Providing resources for therapy (like noting phone numbers on the fridge) so teens know they’re available if needed is also a smart strategy.

Remember: The only way to know how your teen is doing is to make space for sharing feelings and to actively listen. Don’t assume your introverted or extroverted teen is content with or craving more connection; do ask them, and ask regularly.

[See: Fear, Courage, Grit: Meet More Than 50 ‘Hospital Heroes’ in Pictures.]

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