Is Your Teen Stressed, Sad or Angry? They May Be Feeling Grief

By Kelly Maynes, PsyD, and Lauren K. Ayr-Volta, PhD

This pandemic has been uniquely tough for teenagers.

Teens are wired for independence, but instead, they’ve been stuck at home. Their brains are primed for social connections, but in many ways, they’ve been cut off from friends. And just as they’re approaching big milestones – like prom and graduation and college – the milestones have changed or been taken away entirely.

So it makes sense that teens right now are feeling anxious and depressed – and a kind of grief.

Pediatric psychologists Kelly Maynes, PsyD, and Lauren K. Ayr-Volta, PhD, join the blog to help parents support them.

For a list of warning signs of teen depression and anxiety, read Teen Depression and Anxiety: What Parents Should Look for, Ask and Do.

Help your teen understand the many types of grief.

Grief isn’t just about death. It’s about loss. And many children, teens and adults are experiencing grief right now.

This may be especially true for teenagers who are in some kind of transition, such as between high school and college. If they missed or weren’t able to have the prom or graduation they were expecting, they’ve sustained a real loss.

Everyone experiences grief differently, but in some order or another, we all tend to progress through these stages:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Sadness
  • Acceptance

Recently, a sixth stage of grief was added: meaning.

It can help your teen to talk about this process, and name the experience they’re having.

Give your teen an opening to talk.

Many teens avoid talking about difficult topics, because the emotions attached to them seem too intense or overwhelming. But this can wind up making them feel alone in what they’re feeling, which adds to anxiety and depression. So as a parent, create opportunities to talk about loss and grief.

  • Try asking your teen about the things they miss right now: sports and regular social activities, summer travel, a concert they’d been looking forward to. Then ask about how they’re dealing with that.
  • When it comes to talking about their feelings, some teens like a direct approach, and will willingly engage in a long conversation. Others may only put up with a quick “weather check” on their mood: “How are you feeling today, scale of 1 to 10?”
  • You don’t need to force a conversation, but you can create openings for when your teen is ready. You know your child best.

> Get more tips for helping your child cope with stress.

Build in moments of connection every day.

With so much time together under one roof, you may think you’ve already got this covered – but family members can feel isolated even when they’re in the same room together, if they’re all doing different things. And a sense of isolation can contribute to feeling depressed.

  • Intentional, quality time together can be one of the best ways to support your teen right now.
  • Instead of everyone watching entertainment on their own device, pick a movie to watch together, so you can have the shared experience of laughing at the same jokes or jumping at the same scary parts. Build a puzzle. Go for a walk together.
  • Whether or not your teen wants to talk about their feelings, knowing they have family game night to look forward to, or even just a 15-minute lunch together, can ease their feelings of isolation.

> Here are 40 ideas for new family traditions.

Talk about fear, and maintain perspective.

The many unknowns of the pandemic create anxiety for everyone, and may leave your teen feeling on edge or stuck in worst-case-scenario thinking. Teens may worry about a family member getting sick, or getting sick themselves. They may worry about the next school year, and part-time jobs, and college plans.

  • Talking about fears can release some of the angst attached to them. So ask your teen what’s going on, and talk through the details.
  • It might help to talk about what’s not in your teen’s control, as well as what is – like developing coping strategies for the uncertainties ahead. Use a coping toolbox to help your teen build resilience.
  • If your teen is stuck in worst scenarios, urge them to consider the best scenario for a moment, too. Talk about the many possibilities in between.
  • To stop racing thoughts, try focusing on the present moment. Here’s one exercise: Name five things you can see right now, four you can feel, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. Here are 11 other mindfulness exercises.

> Want more articles like this from pediatric experts you trust? Get our weekly newsletter.

Normalize what your teen is feeling.

Your teen may be relieved to hear that what they’re experiencing is normal, and they don’t need to get over it right away. They may also feel some comfort in being reminded that they’re not alone in their grief.

  • Share how you personally are experiencing the pandemic (without laying all of your problems on their shoulders), and talk about how lots of people are feeling sadness, anger and grief right now.
  • Ask how their friends are dealing with this, and what they’ve noticed other people saying on social media. Your teen’s interactions on social media can be a great conversation-starter, and give you insights into their world. (Here are tips for online safety.)
  • At the same time, be careful not to minimize your teen’s individual loss. Just because these feelings are normal and widespread doesn’t mean they’re easy.

Confirm that it’s all right to be sad – and to ask for help.

Remind your teen that grief is a process. Encourage them to take time to feel their loss.

Make sure they know that they should ask for help from family and friends, and that there are professionals who can help them too. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your teen’s pediatrician for help finding a therapist.

These are tough times, and we can all benefit from support.

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