LA school counselors offer mental health tips for kids and teens

Written and produced by Kathryn Barnes

About one in four children and teens have become angry, anxious or stressed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s according to a study published by The Journal of the American Medical Association in April, based on surveys from parents and caregivers.

“A lot of [teenagers] are experiencing multi-layers of symptoms, whether anxiety, depression, resistance, and avoidance,” says Raeleen Taylor, a licensed clinical social worker who works with high school students throughout Los Angeles.

Some younger kids are exhibiting regressive behaviors, according to Carla Nuñez, a licensed clinical social worker at an elementary school in Santa Monica.

“A child who might have not been wetting the bed has now started to wet the bed, or a child who was very comfortable separating from their primary caregiver is now having some separation anxiety,” she says.

Nuñez and Taylor offer advice for parents, caregivers, and teachers.

Notice the signs

Taylor says teenagers who may be depressed or anxious often stop doing activities they used to love, like playing an instrument or running. They also may isolate themselves from their family members or friends, and display new types of behavior than before.

In younger kids, Nuñez recommends looking out for regressive behaviors like bed wetting, separation anxiety, or struggling to engage and interact with peers.

Validate feelings

If teens are struggling with their mental health and the pressures of the pandemic, Taylor recommends parents and teachers encourage discussions of those feelings.

“During those difficult moments and those happy moments, be present,” she says. “Allow them to process whatever they're feeling at that moment.”

Group work can also be helpful. “Set up moments where they can be around their peers, whether that's a Zoom meeting or face to face.”

Younger kids may have a harder time discussing those feelings, so Nuñez recommends trying another tactic.

“A child's first language is play,” she says. “It feels safer to play it out, or express it in a creative way where it's taken off of them and placed on to something else.” Drawing, journaling, and playing pretend are great ways to help kids work through expressing and processing complicated emotions.

Celebrate the positives

The pandemic has taken an emotional toll, but it’s also opened up new opportunities. Taylor recommends noticing and celebrating the silver linings.

“Students that struggled socially are now able to march to the beat of their own drum,” she says. “That student that is having struggles with distractions at school [is] coming into their own, learning their rhythm and their ability to organize and be prepared.”

Also, she says, hardship can help breed growth and resiliency.

“I've seen so many teens step up to the plate, preparing dinner before their parent gets home or being able to convey their needs,” says Taylor. “There are some extreme positives that are occurring during this time in our adolescents.”