Therapists and counselors in the area have seen a rapid rise in teenaged patients as the average angst and anxiety common to navigating the teen years has been compounded and exacerbated by the unexpected complications associated with the coronavirus lockdowns.
“Nobody could’ve anticipated or expected this,” said Alyssa Najera, LCSW, a therapist with Small Town Counseling CA, Inc. “We are in this chaos and everything has changed.”
Najera, a local therapist with a practice in Oakdale and Sonora, has seen a sharp influx of teenage patients struggling to maintain some semblance of routine amongst a constantly changing environment.
The Oakdale Joint Unified School District admitted a significant drop in grade performance across the district as many students seem to be struggling with distance learning — a disturbing challenge without a clear solution for both parents and administrators.
Some parents, trying to cling to some semblance of normalcy, have tried putting more pressure on their kids to bring up their grades by applying discipline like they would in the past but Najera warns that punitive discipline may only make things worse.
“I think it’s important that we check our own definition of what success looks like in this new environment,” Najera said. “We have to be mindful that they are going through hell right now.”
And that hell is completely new with fresh challenges and pitfalls that a new generation is facing without a lot of tools or even a compass to navigate choppy waters.
“Yes, school and grades are important, but as a parent you want to be aware of all of the added layers of complexity in their lives and focus on how to support both their academic and emotional needs,” Najera said. “As children, they are already dealing with peer pressures, academic difficulties and relationships, now add the health pandemic, social unrest, our political climate and grief around the loss of so much of what they know. Check in with your child frequently to assess how they’re really doing. They may not always want to talk, but keep offering the safe space for them. They will let you know when they are ready.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported the call volume for their helpline increased by 65 percent in comparison to last year with an average of 200 calls per day, most asking for help with anxiety.
When COVID-19 shut down the country in early March, grinding life as people knew it to a screeching halt, all semblance of structure and normalcy disappeared, creating crippling anxiety without a healthy outlet.
While kids are quick to lament the rigors and requirements of a school program, the sudden lack of familiar structure has been jarring and for some, overwhelming.
Sitting in on a Zoom call or within Google classroom can be a poor substitute for an actual teacher in the room, making asking for help a daunting task.
“For students who may have never exhibited challenges, they may present with fresh anxieties,” Najera said. “Parents can get a feeling of helplessness because they don’t know how to help.”
Student athletes may be struggling, too, as the routine of training and participating in fall sports has been altered, creating a question of identity.
“So many things are coming up that have never come up before,” Najera shared. “The situation has created a magnifying glass on existing issues.”
Moving forward, Najera offered the following tips to help parents during this unprecedented and challenging time.
“Don’t hyper-focus on the little things,” she said. “You have an opportunity to create a safe space for your kids. What matters most is how we teach our kids how to deal with big things and how to adapt. We need to create the space where we can hear our children.”
In addition, Najera recommends the following:
· Provide them with a schedule (but also remember to be flexible) that creates predictability. Predictability creates a sense of psychological safety, as they generally know what to expect. This is especially important given all the uncertainty they are facing.
· Practice self-awareness, self-control, and self-care. Children are constantly learning from adults. It’s up to the adults to work through whatever emotional baggage they are carrying so they can model positive and healthy coping skills for their children.
Najera warned that even when kids are returned to class, the ruined expectation that everything will be as it was, can be another trigger for those who struggle with change.
“Going forward, school is going to look completely different,” Najera said. “We need to be mindful and watch for red flags that our kids are struggling.”
And what do those red flags look like?
Najera admits that sometimes knowing the difference between a red flag and typical teenage behavior can be a challenge but it’s more important than ever to open communication and be willing to listen.
“If your child has an exaggerated response to a stressor, that’s usually a good indicator that they’re dealing with some heavy stuff,” Najera said.
Here are some more signs:
· Typically social and outgoing, but is now quiet and isolating
· Quick to shut down
· Sudden change in appearance
· Increased emotional outbursts that you may initially perceive as an exaggerated or over response for the situation
· Broken sleep or sleeping too much (spends lots of time sleeping during the day)
· Increased stomachaches
· Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
· Increased negative self-talk
· A pattern in unexplainable scars or injuries
· Distribution of personal items, creating a plan of who will get what (this can be a sign of suicidal ideation)
· Increase in risky behaviors like sneaking out, substance use, vaping
· Some children may be honest about hurting themselves. If this happens your initial response may be to dismiss this or attribute to “being a teenager,” but it’s important to acknowledge these statements and seek professional help if needed.
Najera also admitted that for students with special needs, distance learning has created more complicated challenges.
“For any student who has an IEP or 504 accommodation plan, it is important parents advocate for their children to ensure their academic needs are getting met even in a distance learning setting,” she said. “This is not always easy, but does require ongoing communication with the student’s teacher and education team.”
Many parents have realized that therapy for their teen will help them acquire the new skills needed to navigate a confusing time but others might remain reluctant to take that step.
For more information on teen therapy, people can contact Small Town Counseling at (209) 968-1707 or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Najera also hosts an emotional wellness podcast at https://therapistsuncut.com/