British Columbia

How to talk to teens about the COVID-19 pandemic

Teenagers may be less likely to be seriously affected by the physical dangers of COVID-19, but health professionals say the pandemic's emotional toll may be magnified for young people.

Psychiatrist says teenagers have developing brains that require special considerations

Teenagers may be adversely affected by the anxiety and depression that can come from living during a pandemic. (Shutterstock)

Teenagers may be less likely to be seriously affected by the physical dangers of COVID-19, but health professionals say the pandemic's emotional toll may be magnified for young people.

During British Columbia's daily update on Friday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry gave a special shout-out to teenagers trying to cope with the stress and anxiety of these uncertain times. 

"This is a very challenging time for teenagers in particular," Henry said, speaking to the hardship of being stuck at home away from friends, with school and other goals now in limbo.

"This is a transitional period in your life and what's happening now is extraordinary and you need to be comfortable reaching out."

Psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang agrees that there should be special considerations for teenagers during this time. Young people have enough to deal with normally, Kang says, because of the developmental stage of their growing brains. 

"The teenage brain is different from the adult brain. It's under construction in many ways," she said. 

Impulsivity, novelty and connection

The brains of people between the ages of 15 and 24 are hard-wired for impulsivity, novelty and connection with peers. So staying at home all day, away from friends and with not much new to do, can really take its toll. 

Kang says she has noticed more unregulated screen time, which can be especially problematic for teens with poor impulse control. 

Not all screen time is created equal, Kang says. What she wants parents to watch for is kids playing video games or watching videos for hours, alone. 

"You don't want a teenager sitting alone in the basement by themselves with a first-person shooter game," she said. "There are ways of using technology that are healthier than others."

Kang says that using devices to stay connected with friends or family, to encourage physical activity and to inspire creativity can be useful. So watching TikTok videos for hours may be detrimental, but spending hours creating a TikTok video could be beneficial. 

'Tell them the truth'

Getting enough exercise and sleep are two other factors that Kang thinks parents need to be particularly aware of because they can help manage depression and anxiety.

Teenagers need nine to 12 hours of sleep a night, she said, so now would be a good time to let them sleep in and catch up on some zzzzs. Moderate exercise, on the other hand, should happen for at least one to two hours, daily. 

For those whose teenage children are struggling with anxiety about the state of the world, Kang recommends being honest, optimistic, and encouraging action.

"Teens are very aware. You have to tell them the truth. You cannot sugarcoat it or pretend things are different," Kang said.

Kang recommends parents share hopeful data that shows B.C. may be flattening the curve. And find ways for teenagers to contribute to their community — whether by banging pots in support of health-care workers at 7 p.m. or helping their grandparents get groceries. 

'Be repetitive'

As for parents struggling to convince their teens to stay home, wash their hands and keep a safe distance from others, Kang recommends modelling positive behaviour to start. 

She also recommends starting those conversations with a question to see how their children are coping, rather than launching with a lecture. 

"It has to be repetitive," Kang said, adding that it's not enough to talk about physical distancing once or twice.

"You have to do it again and again and again."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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