The coronavirus pandemic has left teenagers and young adults struggling with their mental health, with more than half of young people (56%) saying they “always” or “often” feel anxious.
The Prince’s Trust’s long-running annual survey of young people’s happiness and confidence found that more young people are feeling anxious than ever before in the report’s the 12-year history.
Half of the young people interviewed by YouGov for the trust’s 2021 Youth Index, said current political and economic events had affected their mental health.
This year’s report, which surveyed 2,180 16 to 25-year olds across the UK, also revealed that more than a quarter say the previous year has left them feeling unable to cope with life, which rose to 40% of Neet young people (those not in work, education or training).
Meanwhile, half of 16- to 25-year-olds reported their mental health had worsened since the start of the pandemic.
“The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on young people’s mental health and wellbeing,” said Jonathan Townsend, the trust’s UK chief executive.
“Many believe they are missing out on being young, and sadly we know that the impact of the pandemic on their employment prospects and overall wellbeing could continue far into their futures.”
Read more: How do you help an anxious child?
What’s fuelling an anxiety crisis among young people?
According to Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy, anxiety is characterised by a feeling of vulnerability in the world so it’s only natural that we might be feeling a little more anxious than usual, teens and young people included.
“Young people have had their world turned upside down this past year,” she explains. “Limited social contact with peers, fears around getting COVID and worries around what the future holds post-pandemic could all be taking a toll on their mental wellbeing.
“But this is likely to be much more so for those who already struggled with anxiety day-to-day.”
Neil Wilkie, psychotherapist, author of Reset and creator of the online therapy platform, The Relationship Paradigm, says COVID-19 has created a cataclysmic change in the world that has struck right at the heart of young people.
“Before all this happened, teenagers and young adults were relatively well insulated from harsh realities,” he explains.
“A significant percentage had hopes and dreams of escaping from home to go to college or university, get a reasonable job and then rent a place with friends and have fun.
“Now all those dreams have been dashed. University is still possible but only in a virtual sense. Getting a job is increasingly unlikely and escape from home is fading into the distance.”
Instead many teenagers and young people are now feeling trapped at home with parents and siblings.
Wilkie says young people are also experiencing growing fear and uncertainty over the pandemic as new variants emerge, as well as concern over their financial futures.
“The economic devastation of the pandemic is becoming more apparent and may be having a direct effect at home with furlough and redundancy,” he adds. “Not to mention the fact that the impact on future generations is becoming ever clearer.”
Against this backdrop many young people feel powerless.
“All they can do is watch from the sidelines as their elders and betters demonstrate that they do not have the solution,” Wilkie explains.
And ‘doom-scrolling’ social media could also be intensifying feelings of anxiety.
“They are also watching this unfold through the lens of their social media with its inbuilt confirmation bias where they only see what they believe,” Wilkie adds.
According to Wilkie, in situations like this, the primal response is to freeze, because there is nothing that we can fight or flee from.
“For young people, it is easiest to withdraw into the black hole of social media and seek comfort in its predictability,” he explains.
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, says other people’s anxiety may be having a knock-on effect on teenagers’ wellbeing.
“Sometimes the home is a safe, containing place that helps mitigate this but, for others, home can be a stressful place too - with complex family relationships and everyone trying to juggle so many balls at the moment,” she explains.
“Parents might be stressed having to manage a new work regime, or being furloughed or look for a job alongside helping with young people's education, keeping the family safe and healthy and so on. If those people around teenagers and young adults are stressed, this exacerbates their stress.”
While young people normally cope and develop through their friendships, this coping mechanism has been halted too in lots of ways.
“All of this is increasing anxiety in young people and, depending on their levels of resilience, putting them over thresholds where they can cope,” she adds.
Watch: Dr shares mental health tips for coping during the pandemic.
How to help a teenager or young adult struggling with anxiety
Open up about your own feelings
According to Wilkie, one of the best ways to help a teenager who is feeling anxious is to talk to them about how you are feeling, being honest about fears, anxieties and worries. “If we talk to our children and show our openness and vulnerability, that is so much better than pretending that everything is fine, because they will know that this is a false mask,” he explains.
Break the pattern
It is easy to get locked into a dissociated world where everyone is trapped on their screens or on Netflix, says Wilkie. He suggests creating interruptions when you have to engage with each other to talk, share and have different experiences.
Create moments of connection
“Start and end the day with your children with moments of connection, where it is as if time has stopped and nothing else matters,” Wilkie suggests. “The ‘goodnight’ or ‘good morning’ can have an impact that resonates for many hours.”
Wilkie recommends creating time, as a family, to do fun things together. “Unleash the child within as laughter is a great anxiety buster,” he adds.
Overlook the niggles
While it is easy to get caught up in everyday parenting gripes, Wilkie suggests parents try to park the complaints about messy bedrooms etc. “Focus instead on what will make your children feel safe and happy,” he says.
Appreciate the wins
Every night, share with each other, three good things that you have noticed during that day. “This helps you get your subconscious in a positive frame before you go to sleep,” Wilkie explains.
Teach them to practice self-care
Good sleep, good food and good exercise are also fundamental to reducing anxiety. “What can you do to encourage your children on that journey?” asks Wilkie.
Dr van Zwanenberg suggests encouraging your child not to drink caffeine after midday, turn screens off an hour before bed, and only use their bed for sleep (not to work in or ring friends from). She also suggests they don't nap in the day.
Keep to a routine
“Get up at the same time every day, eat regular meals, put exercise into your day, ensure you set a small achievable goal every day and that there is something enjoyable, however small, and go to bed at the same time every night,” Dr van Zwanenberg suggests.
Explore their feelings
Take time to ask our children how they are feeling and listen, exquisitely well, to their answers. “Ask open questions such as, ‘How are you feeling right now?’,” suggests Wilkie.
Encourage them to connect with friends in ways they can
At present connection, although over devices, can be a lifeline for teenagers and young adults. Dr van Zwanenberg suggests parents, as much as possible, do not remove this from a young person as a consequence for behaviour, unless removal of devices is needed for safety.
Coax them out of isolation
Dr van Zwanenberg says it is important young people do not isolate themselves in their rooms, ruminating over worries. She suggests trying to encourage them to engage with others in the house, if only for distraction.
Talk about the future
To help teens move forward from worrying about today, Wilkie suggest getting them to focus on the future. “Help your children elicit their dreams, maybe by drawing a picture of their ideal future,” he says.
Try a grounding exercise
Dr Touroni suggests something called the ‘54321’ game. “You can do this anywhere,” she says. “You simply need to stop what you’re doing and name five things you can see in the room, four things you can feel (e.g. your feet against the floor), three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing good about yourself.
Encourage them to breathe
Dr Touroni suggests asking anxious children to breathe in for four seconds, hold their breath for seven seconds and exhale for eight seconds, and repeat as needed.
Incorporate relaxation techniques into their day-to-day routine.
“For instance, you might take 10 minutes to practise some mindfulness meditation or yoga together,” Dr Touroni suggests.
Remind them that thoughts are just thoughts
Dr Touroni suggests parents encourage children to question negative thoughts and ask if there could be any other explanation or solution.
Find an empowering motto
Ruth Kudzi, mindset coach and former headteacher, says this is a great activity that you and your teen can do together. “Once they find a quote that resonates, put it everywhere - print the quote/motto out and stick it up in the house, have it on phone/laptop screen savers, buy a journal/jumper with the word or quote on,” she says.
Kudzi says this activity can help remind them of their strength, their worth, their power.
Set manageable goals for managing their anxiety
Help your teenager set small goals for things that they feel a little anxious about. “Ask what are the small things you can do which make you feel better? Ask what activities help you feel calmer? Is it running, being outdoors, listening to music, drawing, writing, TV time, having a some quiet time or reading a book?” says Kudzi.
Be aware of their needs
If they value their own space and quiet time, try and ensure others in your household respect that. “Maybe have a 'quiet hour' in your household where the TV and music is off, could you have a sign on your teen’s door that makes it clear to the younger siblings to not go in,” suggests Kudzi
If you’re worried your child may be suffering from anxiety, it’s really important they receive the right support. “The earlier you take action and find them the right help, the faster their chances of making a speedy recovery,” Dr Touroni says.
You can also contact your GP if your teen is struggling.