How Do I Know if My Teen Is OK?

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According to Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist in Northern California and creator of the popular YouTube channel The Psych Show, teens and young adults are having a harder time psychologically than older generations because Covid has represented a bigger proportion of their lifetimes, and “the effects are greater.”

He explained that the adolescent brain is wired to quickly make associations, and during the pandemic, some young people have learned to be hypervigilant, because we’ve trained them to associate going places with risk of a major disease. Since our brains don’t finish developing until our mid-20s, he said, young people are quick to act on their emotions. For some, that means “anxious avoidance,” which can manifest as a reluctance to leave home. For others, it means “overconfident approach,” which accounts for teens and young adults who throng to parties, unmasked.

Dr. Mattu said the best thing parents can do for teens and young adults who are withdrawing is to help them develop four key skills. The first is “the ability to do things alone, like run an errand or do what needs to be done to get through their day,” based on the expectations of their family and culture. Second is “the ability to ask for help, to be vulnerable and ask for support,” such as by emailing a teacher on their own or reaching out to a counselor or parent.

Third is “the ability to support their peers, because teens are really focused on their relationships with each other,” explained Dr. Mattu, and often, a peer is the first one to know when someone is struggling. And the fourth skill is “finding a connection to a larger community,” such as a club, an organization, a fandom, a religious group — anything that creates meaning and purpose.

As young people take steps to re-enter the world, sometimes things will go wrong. The growth happens when they navigate their distress and try again instead of avoiding similar situations. Recently, my teenager asked me to drive her to meet a friend in downtown Chicago. “You can do this on your own,” I said. When she never arrived, her friend called us. Our daughter had entered the right street address in Google Maps — in the wrong city.

By the time we contacted her, she was lost on the highway, hysterical and terrified. “I just want to come home,” she cried. Our best friends, who live close to where she was, offered to drive out to meet her. My daughter swallowed her pride and accepted their help.

A week later, my daughter took a deep breath and got back on the highway to meet another friend. “This is you, being resilient,” I told her, as she headed out alone. “I couldn’t be prouder.”