Q: As this pandemic drags on, I am getting worried about my eighth-grader. He’s doing well in school, but I can’t get him very motivated about it. All he wants to do is play video games. He seems sadder at times. How can I best support him?
A: I hear you — I think we are all feeling that wall. It has been tremendously difficult for me to watch kids struggle this year, and often for preventable reasons. Personally, I think we need to get kids back in school, all grades. It is taking far too great a toll on their emotional and physical health. It is the silent pandemic we are going to be dealing with for far longer than we think.
First, go easy on yourself. Be open about your feelings with your son. It’s OK to admit we as parents are struggling, too. Model your resilience, and problem-solve steps you can take right now to get moving in a better direction.
It’s OK to be lenient with the video games — it’s the primary stress release (and sometimes source of connection) for many kids right now. Lay the groundwork that there will be more structure and weaning down as things return to normal.
Be rigid about sleep. Teens still need a consistent sleep routine, a reasonable bedtime and electronics limited before bed. Pick this battle. A 13-year-old should be getting eight to 10 hours of sleep. Try and get him moving daily — even if it’s just a walk around the block.
Be alert for signs of a bigger mental health issue such as depression or an eating disorder. Red flags to watch for include a dramatic change in academics; worsening anger, irritability or personality changes; change in appetite; and losing interest in things he usually enjoys. Don’t downplay what he says as “being dramatic” — it could be a real cry for help.
Please take any talk of self-harm or “endings” seriously. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens after accidents. If your teen is in danger or you are worried, call 911 or take them to the nearest ER. Safety planning is important for any teen with thoughts of suicide, including making sure guns are locked away and separate from ammunition. Remember prescription drugs like Xanax are the most abused substance by teens after marijuana and alcohol.
Last, please don’t be shy about seeking help. I have helped more kids with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders in the past year than I have in my entire career. Their suffering is real. You are not alone as a parent, and they are not alone as a teen. Reaching out is a sign of strength, not weakness. Stay well, friends — we will get through this.
Dr. Doug Lincoln practices general pediatrics at Metropolitan Pediatrics in Happy Valley. He is board-certified in both pediatrics and preventive medicine, with special interests in helping parents meet their breastfeeding goals, caring for neurodiverse children with behavioral health needs, and advocating for children via teaching and policy. As a dad of two boys, he understands the joy and hard work that comes with parenting.