The pandemic exposed many teens to trauma and tested their fragile resilience. In this Psychiatric Times article, Maria Abenes, EdD, discusses how parents and clinicians can help adolescents cope with its ongoing effects.
While teenagers have been largely spared the ravages of COVID-19, the full picture of their experience is just beginning to emerge. The pandemic has exposed many teens to trauma and tested their fragile resilience. The school closures, canceled proms, and separation from friends seemed a small price to pay to save the lives of thousands. But in exchange, the 14- to 18-year-olds who represent the younger side of Generation Z were robbed of the capstone of their formative years.
Adapting to the “new normal”
When the pandemic shuttered classrooms across the country, everyone scrambled to pivot. Schools were pressured to build remote-learning solutions from scratch. Families had to adjust their homes to create space and time for work and school. Kids and teenagers did their best to stay focused, engaged, and connected despite the uncertainty.
A September 2020 poll found that 59% of teenagers considered online school worse than in-person instruction, with 19% describing it as “much worse.” One national survey found that half of the teenagers were experiencing anxiety, trouble concentrating, and social isolation/loneliness during remote learning. Also in the survey, 31% of parents reported their child’s emotional health was worse than before the pandemic.
Effects on minority youths
Children in Black, Latino, and multiracial families were impacted, as they were more likely to receive virtual instruction compared to White children. Parents of these remote-learning children were also more likely to report loss of work, job stability concerns, childcare challenges, emotional distress, and difficulty sleeping.
Among Latino families, adults reported a higher prevalence of stress in relation to food, housing, and job insecurity. Racial tension, protests, and riots added another layer of stress within Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, where more than half of teens worried about dealing with racial justice issues at school.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were experiencing their own version of racism, as many held them responsible for the spread of COVID-19. No less than 81% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders felt violence against them was increasing in 2020.
The influence of social media
Prior to March 2020, 26% of students spent 4 to 8 hours a day on social media. That shot up to 39% during the brunt of the pandemic. Aware that it was one of the few available ways to connect, many families relaxed their rules on screen time, with 81% saying it helped their children.
About 74% of youth who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) said they encountered homophobic content on social media. Gender and sexual identity were major topics of discussion in 2020, with almost a quarter of youths identifying themselves as some form of nonbinary gender. At 65%, LGBTQIA+ youth were twice as likely to report symptoms of moderate to severe depression than non-LGBTQIA+ youth.
Girls continued to be exposed to the harsh side of social media. Body dissatisfaction and body shaming played online, with 53% of girls exposed to at least one form of weight stigmatization.
By fall 2021, the prevalence of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents around the world had doubled from pre-pandemic levels to 25.2% and 20.5%, respectively. Symptoms were noted at higher levels later in the pandemic, especially in girls and older teens.
When students returned to school earlier this fall, only 31% felt emotionally prepared to socialize in person, 20% felt they would succeed in school, and 28% felt they would be able to focus on learning.
The case for PTSD
Currently, the pandemic does not quite fit the criteria set within DSM-5. Qualifying traumatic events are generally direct events that happened in the past. Yet, much of the trauma experienced during the pandemic has been the result of indirect reactions to what might happen in the future. For instance, there were teens who lost family members to COVID-19, an event that could meet the standards for PTSD.
The pandemic has been a true test of their resilience—the ability to develop inner strength despite traumatic events. Research on resilience plays a huge role in how PTSD is treated, and it holds promise for all those affected by COVID-19.