Following my most recent column offering adults a 2020 back-to-school list for teens’ emotional well-being, several teenage commenters asked that I address them in the same way that I address their parents: “as intelligent people who have the tools to support themselves and their loved ones through this trying time.”
Dear teenagers, you are right. And I’m so glad you asked. Here’s my guidance on what you can do to keep yourself steady in the turmoil of the pandemic.
Make the Most of Your Emotional Superpowers
Teenagers experience feelings more intensely than adults do, both negative and positive ones. While this amplifies the psychological discomfort you’re certainly experiencing right now, it also means that you get more out of pleasures and delights. These days the only bright spots many of us are finding are small ones, and for a lot of adults, these don’t feel very satisfying. But for you, small comforts and joys are more comforting and joyful than they are for adults. So, when your mood needs a lift, make the most of this emotional superpower.
What makes this power work for you will be highly personal. You might enjoy video games, pumpkin spice treats, cuddling your pet, being in nature, listening to music, going for a run or doing something else altogether. The adults in your life might not quite grasp how happy it makes you to watch your favorite movie for the umpteenth time. That’s OK. Just know what gives you a boost right now and enjoy it fully.
Trust Your Feelings
When you are worried, sad, stressed, frustrated or anything else, trust that you are almost certainly having the “right” feeling. I say this because you have been raised in a culture that is unnecessarily fearful of unpleasant emotions and which may have given you the impression that emotional distress invariably signals fragile mental health. This is not true. In upsetting times, feeling upset proves, if anything, that your emotions are working exactly as they should. You are in touch with reality — a painful one though it is — and attuned to your circumstances.
When your mood is good, trust that too. With the world off its axis, you might wonder if it’s all right to let yourself feel at ease. It is. Should you notice that calm emotional waters follow stormy waves of distress, don’t assume that you have somehow lost touch. In all likelihood, you have processed and moved past a painful mood, largely by allowing yourself to have it.
Count on Your Psychological Circuit Breakers
Sometimes we helpfully make room for unpleasant feelings. Other times psychological defenses kick in on their own like circuit breakers to protect us from emotional overload. Though psychological defenses can be problematic, such as when people use denial to ignore a painful truth, they are often healthy and can help us regulate how much of an upsetting situation we take on all at once.
For instance, you might notice that the anger you feel about your disrupted school days gives way to an appreciation for your growing self-sufficiency. Shifting from exasperation to rationalization maintains your connection to what’s happening while reducing the emotional charge. Using humor — say, when you are inspired to find inventive ways to crack up your classmates to manage the sheer frustration of sitting through online classes — works the same way. Here’s the point: Your mind is built to help you through this hard time. Put stock in its ability to keep your emotional current at manageable levels.
Have a Basic Plan for Mental Health Maintenance
Plenty of sleep and physical activity will improve your mood, reduce your stress, and increase how much you like yourself and other people. Enjoy the company of people who soothe and energize you. Steer clear of those who leave you feeling stirred up or spent.
Distribute your mental energy with care. So much will go sideways this year, and you have every right to resent the challenges and frustrations of Covid-19. Allow yourself time to be upset. Then try to direct the bulk of your energy toward that which you can control. What kind of friend do you want to be this year? What do you want to learn and get better at? What can you do to support others? Focus on what remains within your power, because exercising that power will help you feel better.
Understand When to Worry
If distress is to be expected, when is it time to worry? A first reason would be if your unwanted emotions start to feel like bad roommates: constantly around and taking the fun out of everything. It’s one thing if sadness, anxiety, irritation, outrage or grief stop by for a visit. But it’s another if they move in or linger for more than a day or two.
A second reason for concern would be if you find yourself routinely using unhealthy strategies to numb or contain painful feelings. Avoiding everyone, being cranky all the time, misusing substances, or sacrificing sleep to binge on social media may bring relief in the short term but create bigger problems down the line.
Finally, you should be worried if you feel you might harm yourself or do not feel safe in some other way. Should you be concerned about your own well-being, or that of a friend, reach out to a trusted adult. Tell a parent, a counselor at your school, or any other grown-up you can count on to take the situation seriously and mobilize the proper supports.
These are incredibly difficult times that are emotionally taxing for everyone. But teenagers should not underestimate the value of their own special strengths. Understanding, harnessing and protecting your mental health resources will serve you well now, and for the rest of your life.