Dealing With Pandemic-Induced Teenage Depression
So. How are things going at your house?
I would say that we've weathered things pretty well over here so far. Yes, there have been some tears, but for the most part we've gotten through the shock of the spring and the weirdness of the summer - now we're heading into the uncertainty of winter.
I have three kids, ages 19, 16, and 14. My 19-year-old daughter experienced what a lot of college kids did last spring - she came home for a week for Spring Break and ended up staying for 8 months. Not easy when she'd gotten her first taste of freedom and then had to finish the year (and opted to live at home and take online classes) from her childhood bedroom.
My two high school students, 9th and 11th grade, have been dealing with the uncertainty of what's going to happen with school. Right now, they're on a hybrid schedule which means they take classes in person two days a week and the rest is virtual/on their own. Each time the go to school in person they assume it could be the last day they go.
Again, we've gotten through this about as well as can be expected. But we had two pretty significant meltdowns last week - two different kids with two different issues - that I think pretty well sum up the foundation of pandemic-induced depression:
My oldest has been upset about the uncertainty of the situation and how to navigate a college education right now.
My youngest is feeling the "Groundhog Day" effects of every day being the same with no end in sight.
I feel like there's a lot of information out there about how to deal with homeschooling young children and dealing with adult depression due to big things like job loss and just the overall situation. And there's information about identifying depression in your kids. But there's not a lot of actionable stuff out there that helps us deal with it.
It's funny how past experience can be an asset in ways you never expected it to be. For most of my adult life I've been a stay-at-home mom and a solo entrepreneur. Because of this, I've had to learn how to be creative with how I spend my time and how I structure it so that it's right for me.
When I was the first of my friends to have a baby and one of the only to make the decision to stay home, I had to think outside the box on how to fill my time so that I didn't go insane with a non-communicative newborn at home. When I started my business, I had to figure out ways to structure my schedule in ways that kept me motivated not only with work, but kept me fulfilled personally as well.
I think these skills just might help us through this.
As I sat with my teary 14-year-old last night who said, "I just feel like I'm living the same day over and over," I realized that it's time to do some brainstorming about how we're going to navigate the months ahead.
Setting a Schedule
I HATE SCHEDULES. In fact, during all of this online learning stuff I haven't implemented one with my kids. I told them, "I don't care when you get your stuff done as long as you do it." And they have - their grades are good and they're staying on track.
This lack of schedule was fun and new in the spring, but now I think it's got to go. As I told my daughter, "If you're sleeping until 2 PM then you're up all night and you're alone. That's not good for depression." So, while I won't make them get up at the crack of dawn on virtual school days...it's time to make when it's dark the time for sleep.
When the pandemic started and the kids weren't going to school 5 days a week I also noticed my schedule changing. I found myself sometimes not working on a Tuesday and Wednesday and then working over the weekend. After a few months of this I stopped; Monday thru Friday would be for work. I needed to define my weekends to help break up the Groundhog Day feeling.
The same goes for teenagers. Try to encourage them to get as much done during the week as they can - like they're working a 9-5 job. Define the weekends with rest and down time. Otherwise it feels like you're doing the same damn thing every day.
Creating New Projects on a Deadline
Remember the movie (and book) Julie and Julia where the author creates a project (make all of the recipes in Julia Child's cookbook) and a random timeline (over 365 days)? GREAT CONCEPT.
Now is the time for creativity and arbitrary deadlines that you force yourself to stick to. As far as new projects, my daughter and I discussed paint by number kits, buying cheap fabric and patterns to make projects with the sewing machine, and learning to cook or bake. My son has a subscription to a computer coding thingy that constantly gives him projects to do. My oldest daughter writes music to post online. I want to learn how to line dance in the privacy of my own home so I can wow everyone when the pandemic is over.
It doesn't matter what it is, but it has to be more concrete than, "I'm going to do this" - you have to add a timeline. Whether it's a deadline or an ongoing project it has to be firm, like "I'm making dinner for the family every Thursday" or "I want to have three paint by numbers done by Christmas," there has to be a sense of urgency or finality to the project.
My favorite photographer, Willy Wilson, does this awesome thing on Instagram called "The 100 Day Challenge." She creates the challenge (taking pictures through a water glass or something equally cool) and she does it for 100 days straight and posts them. Our teens could be doing that, too. For example, my youngest LOVES to do complicated hairstyles and she's really good at it. Challenging herself to do that for 100 days in a row and posting it online gives her a project AND allows her to implement social media. Win, win.
Dangle the Carrot
Again, in our family we've already tasted the freedom. Now we need to scale back a little.
My youngest mentioned that she thinks she's now watched every movie on Disney+. That's awesome and fun, but now...what is there to look forward to?
Working from home, I could sit and binge Netflix pretty much at any time if I wanted to because my schedule is my own, but I don't. When I'm binging a show I don't allow myself to turn it on until the evening. It gives me something to look forward to throughout the day. This can be true for reading, video games, or basically any activity you can't wait to do. Make yourself wait a little longer.
As a random side note, something that we LOVED at the beginning of the pandemic was our new Aero garden. I wanted it for the herbs, but we were unreasonably excited to see the beginning sprouts and watch it grow. We placed bets on which pod would grow first. I know - the things you do to stay entertained during a pandemic.
Make the Regular Special
To piggyback on the carrot thing, try making things that you do regularly special. Don't just wait until the evening to watch your favorite show, schedule movie night or video game night and make it the ULTIMATE NIGHT. Junk food, tons of pillows, a cardboard fort (I don't care how old you are - a good fort is always fun). Don't just make dinner on Friday night - dress up (thank you to my cousin Robert Dimmick, aka Etiquetteer for this idea). Don't just play board games - create an amazing game night with crazy prizes. Involve everyone in the planning and give them tasks.
Find the Infinite...Something
We all have our passions and mine happens to be reading (and writing). When the pandemic hit, I hugged my Kindle to my body and whispered "I love you" to it. Not really, but it has become a sanity saver.
I LOVE that there are more books than I could ever read out in the world - I can't tell you what a comfort that was to me at the beginning of all of this. I also love that I can sit and write whenever I want to and that it's always something I can tap in to.
The "Infinite Something" is different for everyone. Your kids will never hit the end of Minecraft. There are more movies out there than anyone could possibly see in a lifetime. If you're musical, you'll never run out of new pieces to play (or compose). If you're love tech, find the never-ending project (or create it). It feels so good to know that no matter how long this lasts...we have the ability to tap in to the things we love.
As lame as this might sound to your teenager, they might actually enjoy it. I know my once-a-month virtual book club has given me something to look forward to, but this doesn't just have to be about books. Here are some ideas that are more teen-focused:
Movie Group: They might not be able to watch it together, but they can discuss one per month.
Virtual Murder Mysteries: I did this with a networking group and it was a BLAST. There are even some that are teen focused. Yes, they cost some money, but if they all split it it's very affordable.
Social Justice Conversations: Now, hear me out. With the election going on a lot of our teens have become focused on current issues and they LIKE talking about them together. Coming up with a topic or questions could be a great way for them to stay active in what's going on and prepare them for when they start voting at 18.
Gaming: I know that video games can be a slippery slope for some kids, but let's face it - it IS a way for them to interact these days. Setting a time to meet up with friends online to play together might be the interaction they need and give them something to look forward to.
Embrace Simple Goals
Even before the pandemic started, I was occasionally having those Groundhog Day moments. I was feeling sluggish and like I wasn't accomplishing anything useful. I decided that if I could do something for my mind, body, and spirit each day...that would help. I even started a Facebook group so we could share what we were doing and any resources we found helpful.
This would be a simple thing for teens to do, too. Here are the parameters:
CONCLUSION: God, this is weird
It just occurred to me how weird this time is: We're simultaneously depressed about uncertainty and living the same day over and over again. Bizarre.
I will tell you that with every conversation I've had with my kids about what we can do to make this time easier, the concept of talking to a therapist is always discussed. Yes, we can do things as a family but THIS IS A HARD TIME and we parents cannot fix everything. They know that I talk to a therapist regularly and that mental health is no joke. So, while I encourage you to take control where you can, pay attention to when outside help might be needed.
On another note, I've realized that I've made a HUGE error in my parenting pre-pandemic: my kids have never seen Groundhog Day. So, if you're like me, that should move up to the top of your list on a designated family movie night so they have some frame of reference when all of us old people compare our lives to that movie.
If anything they'll understand us more when we start cramming a dozen donuts in our mouths at one time. I love that scene (and I feel like I'm living it).