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How to Help Teens Cope With Anxiety and Depression

Help your children focus on what activities are most important to them.

The incidence of teen anxiety and depression had been on the rise prior to the pandemic, and has continued since. In a JAMA Pediatrics study, published in March 2022, researchers found that in 2020 alone, 5.6 million children were diagnosed with anxiety and 2.4 million with depression. Parents and schools are also working to address the issue. In the 2021-2022 school year, 96% of schools said they were offering at least one type of mental health service. Schools are responding by giving students specific days off for mental health or occasional homework-free weekends, and some are offering mental health screenings. 

Colleges are responding in a variety of ways. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, many colleges are offering 24-hour telemedicine in response to the huge demand placed on counseling centers since the onset of the pandemic. Through teletherapy, students can get an appointment in days or even hours, and emergency help within minutes in comparison to the weeks-long waits that had become common in campus counseling centers.  Many colleges such as Emory University now require freshmen to take an introductory health course that aims to get students to make healthier choices to improve their mental health, manage stress, and consider diet and exercise. Wake Forest University has created an office of well-being that offers free coaching to students in areas such as stress management, goal setting, and resiliency. 

In a parenting study conducted by Pew Research in January 2023, 4-in-10 U.S. parents say they are worried or really worried that their teens are struggling with anxiety and/or depression. Many are finding being a parent to be harder than they expected.

We as parents and educators must help our children take steps to reduce stress and to prioritize their health. The Making Caring Common Project at The Harvard University Graduate School of Education offers these tips to get started:

Consider putting limits on the number of times students retake standardized tests.

•Start with your children. Help your children think through what types of activities will be engaging and valuable to them and how they might pursue these activities. Engage in the complex choreography of leading and following—guide your children toward activities that they express interest in and then check in to see if an activity really resonates with them. Encourage your children to choose activities that they have a legitimate interest in—not those that they think admission officers will value. 

•Consider reducing activities and AP courses. Encourage your children to focus on those activities that they truly care about and insist that they reduce activities if they are overloaded and stressed. Talk to your children about the amount and type of advanced coursework that is right for them.

•Look at the big picture. Find the time and space to have relaxed conversations with your children about their activities and how they relate to their goals. Consider these types of questions: Why is this activity meaningful to you? What goals does it achieve? What have you learned about yourself, others, and your communities? These conversations are not only important opportunities to hear from your children, but also help them develop a clearer sense of what energizes them. Such discussion also helps parents get to know their children in a different and deeper way. In addition, when your high school-age children are more aware of their own goals and passions, they will be better prepared to apply to college.

•Set a limit for standardized tests. Discourage children from taking the same standardized test more than twice. The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education updated The Turning The Tide Report in 2019 and it continues to encourage high school students to focus on meaningful and ethical engagement and minimize achievement pressure. Many of the Turning The Tide report endorsers make the point that taking standardized exams too many times rarely improves student scores. Instead, repeating these tests can leave students feeling anxious and takes away attention from other meaningful activities.

It is easy for students and parents to get caught up in what they think colleges want and to let that drive students’ choices. It’s important to keep an eye out for signs that your child might be struggling with something. If you notice that your child has a slip in grades, is moodier than usual, or is acting out in other ways that differ from their norm, it’s important to continue to check in with them. Repetitiveness may feel ostracizing at points, but you may never know the impact of continuing to ask your child how they are until they finally tell you how they really are. 

Keep in mind that not all students can maintain positive mental health when trying to meet exceedingly high expectations. Since there are so many excellent colleges, students should never make choices that negatively impact their health and well-being just to improve. Healthy choices today are more likely to lead to a more rewarding college experience and a fulfilling future.

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