Helping teens get through loss, isolation and fear begins at home, expert says

Teenagers are experiencing more stress than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s important for parents to encourage their children to share their feelings, support them, work through the difficulties together while also caring for themselves.
Maria Rago, Ph.D., is a psychologist and president of Rago & Associates Counseling Services.

By all accounts, 13-year-old London Bruns of Ridgefield, Washington, was a happy teenager. Her parents described her as a sweet and sensitive daughter with a kind heart and incredible artistic talent.

Bruns showed no signs of depression, anxiety or anything that would lead her family to believe that she was struggling. So why, in late September, did the View Ridge Middle School student and member of the 14 Silver team at Excel Northwest Volleyball Club end her own life?

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, while suicide was the 10th most common cause of death among Americans of all ages in 2018, it was the second leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24.

The numbers have not gotten better.

Young people are living in an unprecedented time. Between growing up with social media to the drastic isolation and having their worlds turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, suicide rates are on the rise.

“Suicidal ideation has gone up since the pandemic started, and for people who previously had treatment for anxiety or depression, they have double the rates of everybody else,” said Dr. Maria Rago, clinical director and founder of Rago & Associates in Chicago.

“Routines make you feel safe and make you feel like you have some control and you know what’s happening,” she added. “When that is disrupted, children feel more anxious and not sure what to do with themselves, and there’s a lot of loss … loss, fear and trauma.”

Rago said her practice has also seen a recent rise in other stress-related disorders.

“We have also seen an increase of obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating or restrictive eating and weight loss,” she said. “I think when people don’t have control and there’s a lot of uncertainty, they try to find some control.

“We’re trying to cope with our environment,” Rago added. “We’re greatly affect by our environment, and this tiny, microscopic virus is causing us all to be afraid and worried about our future.”

There are things parents can do to help prevent their child becoming an unsought statistic.

Parents can encourage their teens to share their feelings. Ask them how their day has been and what they have been doing. Remind them that you are there for them, no matter what. Acknowledge that you understand emotions they may be feeling.

“There are several studies that show family meals are very protective for children,” Rago said. “That’s an opportunity for a family to talk and share, and make sure everyone is feeling OK. Make sure they have a chance to slow down and look at each other.

“With the pandemic, people are isolated at home, but they are also very busy. They have school online and work online. Take the time and slow down. Have an atmosphere where they can say how they’re doing.”

Parents should also take the time to support their children. Give them space and encourage them to do things they enjoy. Try not to take over and tell them what to do, but also work with them to find solutions to problems they may be experiencing.

“Some kids who are more shy may not have many opportunities to socialize because they are not in school,” Rago said. “Parents might need to be their socialization. Tell them how much you like them and how fun and interesting they are just in case they’re not getting that from peers.

Parents should also be honest and transparent with their teens. Parents can let their children know that they are experiencing extra stress as well, and by showing them how they deal with their own difficult feelings, it can help teens know their feelings.

They key is not to share those feelings in an overwhelming way, Rago said.

“I’ve heard kids say that they don’t want to tell their parents their problems because their parents are already stressed out,” Rago said. “Parents should let their children know that no matter what they are going through, it’s OK.”

“Families are going through so much right now,” she added. “It’s a confusing time. But make sure the whole family knows they can get support. A pandemic is a pandemic. Everyone is doing their best.”

Rago also encourages families to find creative ways to celebrate family events to overcome feelings of loss or isolation.

“There are a lot of life events that are being missed … birthdays, graduations,” she said. “Families should make sure they come up with creative ways to celebrate milestones to make up for some of the things that are being lost.”

Many children who are already struggling with feelings of isolation or hopelessness are at greater risk, Rago said.

“The pandemic has made it worse for children who are already in a vulnerable position, who have experienced depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or a learning disability. Look out for vulnerable individuals, and give them as much support and understanding as you can.

“It’s important to look out for each other and stay close,” she said.

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Maria Rago, Ph. D., is a psychologist and president of Rago & Associates Counseling Services. She also serves on the Board of Directors of ANAD (Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders).

Rago and Associates provides solution-focused counseling for individual and family therapy in a compassionate atmosphere and is regarded as one of the premier teams for counseling in the Chicago area with offices in Naperville, Geneva, New Lenox and Chicago.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 for anyone who needs it. The number is 1-800-273-8255.

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