During COVID, we all needed some space, being stuck at home. For teens, this time created a new layer of isolation. Being away from friends, family, and school forced kids to rely on digital access to socializing. Many parents wonder how long they should leave kids alone. Is it normal for teens to isolate? Is too much time on screens impacting kids physical and mental well-being? The answers can be complicated and depend upon various circumstances. There are always key signs to look for when it comes to teen mental health. And luckily for parents, there are some specific things we can do to support our kids, especially during challenging times.

Teen Isolation and Mental Health

To start, it is important to maintain communication with teens, always. When we feel supported, it benefits our mental health significantly and this is true for teen mental health as well. If we have a strong foundation of attentiveness, connection will be easier during times of strife or struggle. This is the bedrock of relationships—communicating. It can be tricky at times when we have kids hiding under hoodies, wearing earbuds, and spending hours in their LED-lit den. But, it’s always possible to connect. As caregivers, we must start with ourselves. If we feel a teen is distancing or isolating, where do we start? Within. Ask yourself if the behavior you are witnessing is unusual or pretty standard. You will know in your gut. Here are some tips of what to look for in terms of teen isolation and whether it’s impacting negatively. An adolescent may need a professional assessment if any of the following signs wave red flags.

Signs of Concerning Teen Isolation 

  1. A teen may be spending more time alone than normal. Think about their patterns and what is typical for them. Covid changed a lot of our patterns, so we need to take that into account but as many of us get back to life, what is reasonable?
  2. Teen behavior is sullen or resigned. 
  3. A teens seems hopeless or despondent. Observe the behavior. Perhaps they are sleeping more?
  4. The teen seem depressed, stressed, or anxious
  5. There is an evident inability to focus or concentrate
  6. The teen is withdrawn from any social activities.

Any of these signs can be a concern. As we noted earlier, the first place to start is to connect with the child. Ask the teen to connect, make eye contact, put your phone away (we always need to model the behavior we seek especially when it comes to teens and screens), and ask them how they’re doing. We all know, sometimes someone says, ‘fine’ and we feel stuck. If this happens, you can mirror positive support. Let them know you get how they might be feeling after spending a year going through a global pandemic. Empathy goes a long way toward forging connection. Once you feel you’ve broken through, establish some routines for the family overall. Here are some tips to combat teen isolation:

  1. Plan an outing for the family or even just for the caregiver and teen, one-on-one. Maybe it’s a surf session or a hike together. Or even taking them for smoothies or to the dog park. 
  2. Set rules around screens and, more importantly, stick to them. This is really tough, we get it. But it is a must. No screens at meals, early AM, and off at a certain time, daily. You can enforce this by shutting off the WiFi, or using apps that assist. We can’t emphasize this enough. Don’t forget, teens will act annoyed, frustrated, angry – that’s fine. We don’t need to react to any of that. In actuality, simply being matter of fact about things goes a long way to minimizing a teen’s dramatic reaction. And it will make your life a lot easier. This is just how it is.
  3. Encourage socializing. We all need time with our friends and teens need to connect. In particular, beyond social media, kids need interaction outside, doing things they enjoy. Maybe it’s skateboarding with a friend or mountain biking. Perhaps it’s just walking to town to meet a friend. The teen years are a time to develop healthy independence and we need to encourage this.
  4. Enjoy family meals together and keep the rhythm. This can be tough too, especially for parents that work full-time, etc., but again, this time together, even 45 minutes, is key. You can add to the time by playing a game together or even getting everyone out in the yard after dinner. The time we spend creating happy moments holds value beyond measure.
  5. Let them decide! This may be a fun new activity to try. Give them space in the family decisions – perhaps ask them what they would like to do. Let them plan a meal or choose a restaurant. Ask them what music they’d like to hear or offer to let them DJ.

If teen isolation becomes dramatic or you feel you can’t get through, do not hesitate to seek professional support. You will never regret the connections you make with trusted professionals. 

At SoCal Adolescent Wellness, we provide the professional expertise to teach families the skills of emotional awareness, self-regulation, behavioral modification practices, and fundamental mental health support tools. We connect the symptoms and experiences with evidenced-based therapeutic interventions as we develop unique treatment plans for teens and families. We guide clients to help them adjust and adapt to anything that life brings. We are here to help.