U-M Mott Children’s poll: Nearly 50% of parents say pandemic negatively impacted their teens’ mental health

Mental health experts say that isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for at-risk teens. (Pexels)

ANN ARBOR – The coronavirus pandemic has deeply impacted teens’ lives.

From months of virtual school to not seeing friends and missing out on sports, theater and prom, these consequences have negatively impacted young people’s mental health, according to a new national poll by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Of the parents polled, 46 percent said that their teen has exhibited signs of a “new or worsening mental health condition” since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.

Furthermore, 75 percent of parents said the pandemic has negatively impacted their teenager’s social interactions and parents of girls were more likely to report signs of depression and anxiety than parents of boys.

“Just as young people are at the age of being biologically primed to seek independence from their families, COVID-19 precautions have kept them at home,” poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Gary L. Freed said in a statement.

“Pandemic-related lifestyle changes have wreaked havoc on teens’ lives, with many experiencing disruptions to their normal routines. Our poll suggests that pandemic-era changes may have had a significant mental health impact for some teenagers.”

In total, 977 parents of teens ages 13-18 were polled nationwide.

Beyond emotional impacts, some parents reported that their teen’s quality of sleep has declined, they have withdrawn from family members and have exhibited aggressive behavior.

Freed noted that recent research has demonstrated that teenage depression during the pandemic was due to high levels of parental stress and to teens’ own uncertainties and fears. He said that the pandemic created new mental health issues for some, but for others exacerbated existing issues.

According to the poll, parents said changes in social interactions over the past year seemed to hit their children the hardest.

More than half of parents said their teens have been using social media or texting every day or almost every day. Nearly half of parents reported their children have been playing games online and 35 percent reported their children had talked on the phone with friends every day or almost every day.

Less than ten percent of parents said their teens have been meeting friends in person daily or almost every day both indoors and outdoors.

“Peer groups and social interactions are a critical part of development during adolescence,” Freed said in a statement. “But these opportunities have been limited during the pandemic. Many teens may feel frustrated, anxious and disconnected due to social distancing and missing usual social outlets, like sports, extracurricular activities and hanging out with friends.”

Parents who reported negative impacts in their teenager’s mental health have tried various strategies to help their child, including allowing more time on social media, using mental health apps and seeking professional help.

Keeping lines of communication open is one of the most important things a parent can do to help their child, said Freed.

Here is more information on methods parents can use to help improve their teen’s mental health, from Michigan Medicine’s website:

Relaxing family rules

Half of parents have tried relaxing family COVID-19 rules to allow their teen to have more contact with friends, with most (81%) saying it has helped. Freed says families should encourage social interactions that follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as spending time outside or participating in activities wearing masks and socially distanced.

Half of parents have also loosened social media restrictions – and most (70%) say it helped. Experts recommend that families allow teens to engage with peers on age-appropriate platforms but to continue providing boundaries to ensure screen time doesn’t interfere with other health-related behaviors, such as physical activity and sleep. This could mean banning electronics close to bedtime, encouraging  or only allowing social media use during designated times of the day.

Talking to an expert

One in four parents sought help for their teen from a mental health provider, with three-fourths feeling it helped. A third of parents also talked to teachers or school counselors, with over half (57%) saying that strategy was helpful.

”Teens may experience a wide range of severity of mental health problems, but if parents hear their teen express any thoughts of suicide or self-harm, they should seek mental health assistance immediately,” Freed said.

Trying a Web-based program

A quarter of parents encouraged their teen to try a web-based program or app to improve their mental health, and 60% say it has helped. A third of parents in the poll also looked for information online (58% say it helped.)Apps may make therapy more accessible, efficient, and portable, Freed notes, but parents should consult their primary care provider or other trusted sources for app recommendations as well as for online resources about teen mental health.

Keeping communication open but also giving space

One in seven parents in the poll reported their teen has withdrawn from family since the start of the pandemic. Parents may try to show teens they’re not alone by sharing some of their own worries and successful strategies that help them cope while asking questions that create a safe space for candid conversations. At the same time, Freed notes, it’s also normal for teens to crave privacy from their family. Giving them space for some quiet time, creative time or music time can be helpful to their mental health.

Encouraging sleep hygiene

Child health experts emphasize the importance of sleep for teens, especially when they are under stress. Almost one in four parents in the Mott Poll say their teens were experiencing negative changes in their sleep since the pandemic started.

Experts recommend helping teens craft a healthy and productive routine to their days and nights – whether they’re in virtual or in-person school. This includes a regular sleep and wake cycle that fits with their online learning schedule, other responsibilities around the house and their interactions with peers and family. Making time to get outside is also helpful in regulating sleep.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.