Post-Pandemic Teen Mental Health: How Are Teens Adjusting as Things Get Back to Normal?

Is Your Teen Loving It? Hating It? Or Giving You the Teen Meh?

A year and a half ago, everything in the U.S. changed.

Adults know all about what happened to them. For some, gig work dried up. Others lost jobs completely due to the mitigation measures adopted by state and local governments. Still others went on furlough, while millions of others began working from home. Videoconferencing, shared online documents, and phone calls became the default mode of working and communicating.

The adults didn’t love it, but they handled it.

For the teens in our lives, the impact of the mitigation measures was dramatic. Whereas most adults go through ups and downs in their lives which help them develop resilience to psychological stress and coping mechanisms to manage unforeseen emotional challenges, most teens are in the process of learning, discovering, and creating their personal versions of these important life skills.

That means that when everything changed, most weren’t as well equipped to deal with it as adults were.

With some exceptions – based on varying local policies – here’s how their lives changed:

  • Teens stopped attending in-person school
  • They stopped participating in all in-person extracurriculars, including sports, music, art, theater, and dance.
  • Here’s a short list of the clubs we found on the website of a high school in a typical city:
    • Anime Club
    • Beta Club
    • Debate Team
    • Environmental Club
    • Film Club
    • Future Business Leaders Club
    • Followers of Christ
    • French Club
    • Gay-Straight Alliance
    • International Club
    • Model United Nations
    • National Honor Societies:
      • English
      • Spanish
      • French
      • Art
    • Spanish Club
    • The STEP Team (i.e. stepping as common as HBCUs)
    • Technology Student Association

That list only covers the school-related activities and leaves out milestone events like graduation ceremonies, end-of-season sports banquets, and events like homecoming and prom.

What Happened When School Life and Social Life Went Away

In addition to all of those school sponsored clubs, most teens across the country ceased all typical socializing. From coffee shop trips to froyo excursions to sleepovers to shopping to going to the movies, they had to stay home and make-do with text, phone, and video calls.

Experts in adolescent mental health warned us of the potential negative mental health consequences of what most of us called lockdown or quarantine, although, to keep perspective, very few of us experienced true versions of either lockdown or quarantine. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly stressful time. Throughout the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021, researchers published scores of studies that detailed the negative mental health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

We published our share of articles on the topic, like these:

Teens and Mental Health in the News: The NBC Report
COVID-19: How Isolation Can Be Dangerous for At-Risk Teens
80% of Young Adults Report Depression During COVID-19, Study Says
COVID-19, High School Athletes, and Mental Health
The Impact of COVID-19 on Teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

To take a deep dive into the data, we encourage you to click the links and read those articles.

COVID and Teen Mental Health: What We Know Now

We can report the top-line takeaway from the data collected by researchers, published in peer-reviewed journals, and summarized in our articles like this: the experts were right. The pandemic did, indeed, have a negative impact on teen mental health.

The articles linked to above tell us that for teens during 2020 and 2021:

The latest study on the effect of the pandemic on teen mental health revealed an interesting fact. Those last two bullet points – lack of a sense of belonging in school and a decrease in feelings of connection to peers – had the greatest impact on teens. The only other worries that were close were those that revolved around fear of a loved one or family member getting very sick or dying from COVID.

To elaborate, what the authors of the study found was this:

All of the mental health and life satisfaction metrics trended negative for teens who felt disconnected from peers, school, and the world, while all of the mental health and life satisfaction metrics trended less negative – and some trended positive – for teens who felt connected to peers, school, and the world.

Which should not surprise us at all. For the majority of teens, peer relationships and friends are everything.

What we want to talk about now is this: now that teens – for the most part – are back in school in person and resuming many of their typical daily activities, how are they doing?

And what, exactly, are they doing to help themselves return to almost normal?

Back In Session: How Teens Are Dealing With (Almost) Post-Pandemic School

To find out how what’s up with teens now that we’re halfway through what most of us think of as the fall semester, we asked all the parents of teens and teens we could think of to tell us, in their own words, how and what they’re doing.

You may not be surprised that getting more than one- or two-word answers out of the teens has been a challenge. Their parents, however, are happy to elaborate. Here’s what they’re saying about how their teens are doing right now.

Note: we changed the names to save teens from embarrassment. And from having to admit they really did miss school.

Dr. Martha Long, Atlanta, Georgia, mother of two teens:

“So far, mine (both just turned 16 in 10th grade) love being back and seeing friends. They are tired, though, and working back up to their long days. They are “bored” when they sit in the theater with huge groups of kids because teachers are out and no subs [show up]. Sometimes, though, Teen 1 likes it. Being in the library and eating lunch with smaller groups. Teen 2 finds it challenging to be back among huge crowds. In their words “It’s a bit overwhelming and over-stimulating.” Both are quite burned out on screens and crave human teaching and interaction. But they are finding that inconsistently available due to teacher illness, no subs, everyone’s feeling stretched and tired.”

David Levenson, Charlotte, North Carolina, father of a teen girl:

“My daughter is thriving this year. She struggled with at-home school during the pandemic. She wasn’t able to get motivated for virtual classes and she simply wasn’t invested. We got her a tutor, more for Executive Function issues than comprehension. Even so, she squeaked by doing virtual school.”

Ella Borowitz, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, mother of one teen:

“I’m raising my teen in the rural south, so probably a little different than other experiences you’re hearing. We have been in school, in person, last year and this year. Last year was very shut down. Social stuff did not happen. This year, the social stuff has opened up, and makes a huge difference in her joy. It has been limited, still, but much more open which I think helps with attitude. She can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

We think that’s where most teens and families are right now. Things aren’t back to normal yet, but they can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As you can see from reading these short testimonials, teens are, on balance, very happy to be back at school – and that’s primarily because it allows them direct contact with their friends. It also allows them to re-engage in all the activities we list above. They participated in some of them during the pandemic, but it just wasn’t the same. Now that they’re back at sports practices, club meetings, and going to basketball games, football games, and school dances, they’re reconnecting with friends and the world.

We’ll end this section with observations from two educators who work with teens for a living, to add their perspective on how they think teens are doing.

The first, which is short, comes from Carla Boone, a high school librarian from Henry County, Georgia:

“The kids at school are SO GLAD to be back, but they are all socially behind.”

We’ll follow up with Carla with the hopes she’ll elaborate on exactly what she means by “socially behind.” Although that’s a fairly succinct and accurate assessment of where many of our teens and youth are right now.

Now we have a well thought out response from Todd Espeland, Executive and Artistic Director of Fort Wayne Youhtheatre in Fort Wayne, Indiana:

“Right now, we have in person classes and we open an in person show tomorrow. What I am seeing here in Fort Wayne and specifically with my organization is this: kids are glad to be back for in person instruction. Our fall class enrollment is up 10% from where it was in fall of 2019 [Ed. note: that’s pre-pandemic]. Our fall show, which usually has the lowest turnout for auditions, was higher than it’s been in the four years I’ve been here. Interest in the holiday show (Elf: The Musical) is as high as it’s been in past years, which is very high – we’re talking over a 100 kids.

Most of what I see on my end is that kids are wanting to get back to their interests and passions as an unconscious way of coping. What is most interesting with the kids I’m directing in my show is they are working really hard on the show, but they’re also committed to socializing as well. When they aren’t directly working on a scene, they’re off talking to each other in a way I haven’t seen before. It’s like they are putting themselves 100% into the social experience. But when they are in a scene they are 100% in the work of creating theatre as well. It’s a very interesting dynamic.”

How To Help Your Teen Get Back In the Groove

Our takeaway from our conversations with parents and professionals is that teens, for the most part, are loving being back in school. There are exceptions, of course. Teens who were bullied at school, teens with social anxiety, and teens with problems with teachers are not all excited about going back. They felt virtual school was a relief. For those teens, we recommend that parents keep a close eye on their mood and behavior and seek professional support if they begin to show signs of any mental health or behavioral disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or conduct-related issues.

For parents with teens who are enjoying the return to almost-normal, we recommend the following:

  1. Help them reconnect with friends. Take an active part in arranging social outings, parties, and other shared events and activities that help teens bond with one another.
  2. Encourage them to reconnect in all the extracurricular activities. Support them as they return to the things they loved before, and also support them if they’re enthusiastic about trying new things.
  3. Be patient with the school behavior and social miscues. Remember: your teen is out of practice relating to their teacher and friends. If they make mistakes, be forgiving: they’ll get there. They just need practice.

One final thought for parents: be patient with yourself, too. As you return to almost normal, you yourself might be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of managing transportation to all the extracurriculars and social events. That’s okay. And it probably means you need to do what you teens are really enjoying now: spend some time connecting with your friends, out in the world, doing the things you haven’t been able to do for the past year and a half.

Ready to Get Help for Your Child?

Evolve offers CARF and Joint Commission accredited treatment for teens with mental health disorders and/or substance abuse. Your child will receive the highest caliber of care in our comfortable, home-like residential treatment centers. We offer a full continuum of care, including residential, partial hospitalization/day (PHP), and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
To speak with our admissions coordinators, call: (800) 665-4769