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Help, My Child Is Cocooning and Stuck! How to Help Teens and Young Adults Who Have Been Impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic Behaviorally and Emotionally

teen girl on bed with smartphone

Adolescents and young adults are experiencing the highest rate of anxiety and depression ever reported in the US.

According to a report from the COVID States Project, “…nearly half (49%) of respondents reported symptoms of depression, with 26% reporting moderate symptoms or worse, the level at which follow-up care would typically be recommended in a clinical setting.” (April 2022)

The rate of depression in the adolescent and young adult population was climbing pre-pandemic. However, we are now measuring the impact of two years of disruption in the experiences and milestones that help preserve and define mental wellness. How can parents and caregivers help young people heal?

Eventually, most young people will recover from the setbacks in academics, skill acquisition, and social growth through the normal course of life. However, many will require additional parenting, time, and some professional interventions to feel secure and confident again. The group of young people at highest risk are those who struggled with psychological and psychiatric issues pre-pandemic. At Insight Counseling, we see many of these young people finally recover as we address all the current issues and underlying risks.

Adolescence and young adulthood are times of striving, making mistakes, failing, and learning. It is an age full of emotion and conflict with parents, caregivers, and social norms. Young people must attempt to make strides in the world without parental pushes or even parents’ knowledge. What can seem like a random new interest, secretiveness, or defiance is often needed for a healthy separation from family.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down many, if not most, venues for this kind of activity for at least 18 months. First and second-year college students did not have the opportunity to test out different social connections, interests, and activities. Instead, they were in dorm rooms or at home, trying to be focused academically and feeling they were isolated and missing essential steps in life.

For most young people, parents and other adults provide gentle encouragement and ‘nudging’ to take more social risks and catch up in other skill areas (like working full time, taking college courses, and taking on more adult experiences like car maintenance, cooking, etc.). Often, that will be enough to bridge this gap in skills. But for parents and caregivers who have tried ‘nudging’ only to meet with resistance, passivity, or anger, I recommend a structured game plan that may include assessment for depression and or anxiety

Moving forward in life is a sure sign of returning mental health, even when the movement is choppy, imperfect, and appears random. Again, this is how young people figure out the life paths best suited to them. Inaction or passivity are warning signs that need to be addressed.  Activity and work are essential to mental health for all of us. Parents must insist that young people re-enter the world one step at a time with as much encouragement as possible and sometimes with limits, too.

This is the hardest part of parenting, facing a necessary action step that our children need to take on, knowing in advance they may balk or be deeply resistant. Most humans greet unmet expectations with resistance and even anger despite our recognition that the expectations are reasonable and even good for us. Parents and caregivers must be persistent, calm, and clear about what young people are expected to do to reach milestones. Persistence is key, with small steps presented within a time frame, offering examples and providing assistance along the way.

I’ll use an example of a recent client to illustrate this idea. Michael, a 20-year-old man, stopped taking college classes during the pandemic, moved back home, and experienced significant symptoms of anxiety. He needed help moving past his avoidance of a full re-entry into life. Although he listened to his parents’ ‘push’ and began working a part-time job, he also became overly engaged in video games and sports betting, and incurred a $2,400 debt online.

At first, when his parents found out about his compulsive behaviors and debt, they were very angry, but they came to understand that he was coping with clinical anxiety and a real fear of “never measuring up again” and being “a lifetime failure.” Clearly, these were examples of distorted thoughts and beliefs that he continued to work on in therapy.

In therapy, his parents resolved to remove his access to 5G internet for all but two hours a day and created a calendar with him, agreeing to help him pay off his debt (a 36% loan from a sports betting app) as he worked on tangible chores at the house (hauling a truck full of debris from the yard, painting two rooms, cleaning the gutters and a few other substantial jobs). As expected, Michael was angry at first and “rebelled” by starting full-time work. This really was a step forward, and he eventually began adding chores at home to stop the interest from accumulating.

After five months of working full-time in the retail field, Michael was ready to start taking classes locally. His parents set an expectation: twenty hours of employment a week and two classes to start. With his debt paid off and classes starting, they removed the restriction on his 5G access. He’s now in his second semester of classes, managing three classes and working two nights a week as a waiter.

There were times during this process when his parents wanted to give in and wipe out his debt without his taking full responsibility, and they felt sorry for him when he whined about his menial job. We coached the parents and asked them to share all the entry-level, physically demanding jobs they both had until they graduated from college. We sometimes forget that a struggle or ’empty belly’ is often the best motivator. Many parents who achieved higher status than they were born into forget how the struggle built their work ethic and values. It’s detrimental not to allow our own children to struggle for themselves.

If the above scenario does not fit, or your child will not agree to professional help initially, I suggest a structured and firm approach. Loving parents sometimes avoid the conflict that can come from pushing young people out of their comfort zones, even as they know it is necessary. Our coaching philosophy is to be validating and firm: “If you cannot return to classes or work, we see this as a sign that you need some professional help moving forward. We are not angry, but we will insist you see a therapist to help you find your way.”

When should a parent or caregiver worry? If your teen or young adult seems stuck developmentally and does not honor requests to move forward, this is a sign that it is time to seek professional help. If your child is neglecting personal hygiene, isolating most of the time, non-communicative and angry with you more often than not, you need outside help. Of course, if you find that substance abuse is an issue or your child ever mentions suicide, you must act quickly. There are many excellent resources through rtor.org to help guide you to the right professional help.

Even if your child is out of their pandemic cocoon and moving forward slowly, you should be concerned if they are angry or withdrawn a great deal of the time or if you have witnessed compulsive behavior such as substance use or gambling behaviors, or excessive gaming, phone, or social media use. Clinicians are seeing an increase in many of these disruptive ‘coping’ behaviors, and professional help at a young age can make a lifetime difference.

Please don’t give up, and please don’t give in to unacceptable behaviors in your teen or young adult. The road to recovery is not as long or bumpy as you may fear. The only mistake you can make is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach when your child needs a loving and firm push forward.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialists can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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Liz Driscoll Jorgensen is a therapist with 35 years of experience. She works as a clinical consultant to Newport Healthcare and owns Insight Counseling, LLC, in Ridgefield, CT. You can reach her by email at liz@insightcounselingllc.com

Resources to Recover and Our Sponsor Laurel House Celebrate Black History Month

February is Black History Month, a time for celebrating the outstanding achievements of Blacks and African Americans and their central role in US history. It is also a time to recognize the struggles Black people have faced throughout our nation's history and give tribute to the strength and resilience of generations of Black Americans who have risen above adversity.

Black History Month originated from an idea by Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson, who wrote the Journal of Negro History in 1916 to herald the achievements of overlooked African Americans in US history and culture. In 1926 he led an effort by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History (ASALH) to officially declare the second week of February as "Negro History Week." These dates align with the birthdays of two crucial figures in Black American history: Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809), who signed the Emancipation Proclamation officially ending slavery in the United States, and the Black American abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818), who escaped from slavery to become one of the most influential civil and human rights advocates of the 19th century. In 1976, President Gerald Ford gave official governmental recognition to the observance by declaring February "Black History Month."

Without the contributions of Blacks and African Americans to more than 500 years of US history, culture, entertainment and the arts, science, athletics, industry and the economy, public service, and the Armed Forces, we would not be the country we are today.

Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/young-girl-lying-on-bed-holding-a-cellphone-6593793/

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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