The pandemic games

Teen well-being & mental survival in the age of COVID-19

It’s an extraordinary time to be a teenager.

Young people aged 13 to 19 years are living through a period of history that could resemble a scenario in a dystopian novel: public lockdowns and social isolation, communicating solely via technology, government edicts and public surveillance, lineups for food and essential supplies, masks for personal protection, an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. It may be eerily reminiscent of the fictional nation Panem in The Hunger Games novels, but thankfully our teens aren’t required to fight for survival in a mass-entertainment spectacle!

There’s no doubt that many young people are anxious as they experience life under lockdown and contemplate the implications for their future. Essentially, they are navigating a world we can’t predict.

Importantly, we stress that you seek professional medical advice if your teen is experiencing serious mental health issues whether or not they are related to life under lockdown or any COVID-19 circumstances.

Students are all in the same boat

For older teens (16-19 years), important issues like school or university, exams, summer jobs and travel plans may be top of mind. There is no clear picture yet of when the situation will return to any type of “normal” and when their plans can resume. Life is essentially in a holding pattern for everyone. For teens who are anxious about school or university, one consolation may be that all students are in the same boat: exams, schoolwork, university entrance selection schedules have been adjusted equally for all students.

Alternatives amid summer job cancellations: Canada Student Service Grant

For many students, summer jobs have either been cancelled or plans remain on hold for now. One alternative for teens who are in the fortunate position to have strong family support is to participate in volunteer programs. These can also provide valuable labour market and skills development experiences, while giving back to their local communities.

The federal government plans to launch a new national service initiative to recognize students' significant contributions to the COVID-19 efforts, and provide support through a new Canada Student Service Grant which will provide up to $5,000 to support student's post-secondary education costs in the fall.

According to the government’s website, more details will be made available on the proposed “I Want to Help platform” over the coming weeks, including more detailed information about eligibility, the levels of funding available under the grant, how to apply for a national service position, and how applications will be assessed. Also see the government’s employment resource for students:

Coping with social isolation

For teens in particular this waiting-out period, combined with physical isolation from friends, can be especially challenging given their heavy reliance typically on in-person connections. Certainly, most teens are well-served in terms of tech devices and manage to connect with friends via social media, but this may have limits over the long term as an alternative to real human connection.

One approach to is to help teens, along with all children, understand the difference between being alone without friends and being lonely. Perhaps this period is an opportunity for more self reflection, quiet time, less external pressure and even an opportunity to be bored as a way to becoming more creative. (Think of the over-scheduled lives of many children and teens and how this may stymie the development of creativity, independent thinking or self reflection in some cases).

Author Manoush Zomorodi, in her book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, explains the connection between boredom and original thinking, and explores how we can harness boredom’s hidden benefits to become our most productive selves.

When your teen is missing friends

There are many things teens can do with friends without being with them physically. Here are some examples:

  • Video chats, email, social networks.
  • Watch the same film, show, or listen to the same music at the same time and talk over a group video chat.
  • Organize a virtual party via Houseparty, Zoom or another app.
  • Invite a friend to practice activities like yoga or do a workout at home at the same time as you, and talk about it afterwards (there are tons of free videos online).
  • Your school will likely be sending you work to complete. Contact your classmates and do it together.
  • As for screen time, it’s often a topic that causes tensions between adolescents and their parents. Parents may be more flexible than usual, knowing that this is how teens are staying connected with friends. But the Canadian Paediatric Society suggest it’s best for teens to avoid using devices too late at night. It suggests they try not to change their sleep schedule too much). A good compromise would be to find a sleep schedule that is a balance between the teen’s typical school‐day schedule and their typical weekend schedule.
  • Many adolescents have a strong social conscience: Now is the time to show it! You can help neighbors with groceries, for example, as long as you follow government recommendations (physical distance, handwashing for at least 20 seconds, isolating yourself if you feel sick).
  • This is also the time to develop those many talents that lie within you: art, room decorating, room organizing, writing, music etc.

Source: Canadian Paediatric Society

Break from the 24-hour news & social media cycle

For teens who may be anxious, worried or even fearful of the pandemic situation, be aware of them overloading on daily news and information via traditional and social media. It can be helpful for the adolescent to take a break from the 24-hour news cycle. Another suggestion is for the teen to do things that help them feel physically (in line with social distancing rules) and emotionally safe, and connect with those individuals who are helpful to their well-being. Overall, youth mental health organizations suggest teens are best served engaging in activities that promote a sense of calm and feeling grounded. (The use of alcohol and other drugs is obviously counterproductive to this). See resources on mindfulness for teens.

If anything positive were to come from this lockdown experience, perhaps it’s that individuals within a family who are typically busy and often scattered in different directions, manage to find time to meaningfully reconnect with each other and also with themselves. As author Manoush Zomorodi points out, “It would be an amazing thing to come out of this: that people are more comfortable with themselves because they spend time with themselves, and have gotten to know themselves. At first, maybe it was a bit boring, but then maybe they crossed over into that wonderful place of daydreaming. You can essentially time travel. Even if you're not going anywhere, your brain can time travel. It's awesome.”

National Resources

Anxiety Canada 

Canadian Association of College and University Student Services

Canadian Pediatric Society