Teen Brains Are Less Equipped to Resist COVID-Related Depression and Anxiety

Young girl in jeans and a black tee, sitting on bed with her head in her hands

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 has proven to exacerbate stress, depression, and anxiety in both young people and adults.
  • Teens have yet to develop the full array of cognitive skills to readily navigate the mental health and emotional effects of the pandemic.

A recent study in Biological Psychiatry found that the state of executive functioning during puberty affects how young people may adapt to the stress surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

With brains that are still developing, kids and teens have less capacity to cope with stressful situations and are more likely to internalize that stress. These factors contribute to an increased risk of conditions like anxiety and depression as the pandemic stretches into 2021.

What Is Executive Functioning?

The concept of executive functioning is a widely accepted theory that describes the mental skills of daily life that dictate how individuals navigate, communicate, and solve problems. These skills develop with age, and difficulty with one of them, such as problem-solving, can be the result of an executive functioning complication.

Executive functioning may include abilities such as:

  • Focusing on relevant sights, sounds, and physical sensory information
  • Organizing one's environment or schedule
  • Inhibiting behavior that flouts social expectations and norms
  • Planning for the future
  • Mentally evaluating the possible outcomes of different problem-solving strategies
  • Choosing actions based on the likelihood of positive outcomes
  • Estimating time and effort necessary to achieve outcome
  • Initiating tasks necessary to carry out decisions

Researchers have found that the executive control network (ECN) plays a vital role in how well youth and young adults process and navigate stressful situations. The development of the ECN, or lack thereof, appears to have a connection to the ability to cope with the stress and isolation caused by COVID-19.

The research team for this study recruited American students to take part in both 2013-2016 sessions and a COVID-19 module in 2020. Participants completed several different assessment types, including an MRI, covering factors ranging from traumatic childhood events to neighborhood location and socioeconomic status.

COVID-19 and Stress

There are several COVID-related issues that can result in altered mental stability for kids, including the loss of familial income, parental stress, shifting from in-person to digital learning, and isolation from friends and the usual support systems.

Young people often benefit from regularity and routines. With the pandemic overturning just about every routine we have, it's not surprising that many kids have been overwhelmed. Add in the potential for illness and death of loved ones, increased personal risk, and situations where a child may not be safe at home, and it's easy to see how disruptive COVID-19 has been.

Studies conducted since the onset of pandemic have shown that for adults, regardless of where mental wellness was prior to the pandemic, the events over the last year have taken a toll. Because youth have yet to develop their ECN network and cognitive skills, their wellness has been affected to a more severe degree.

According to Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, integrative and pediatric mental health expert and author of Teletherapy Toolkit, “What you bring to the table during a stressful event is what often determines how you manage that stressor regardless of your age. For many who were struggling with emotions and behaviors before the pandemic, the isolation and overwhelm that the pandemic has brought has exacerbated their issues.”

For kids whose mental and emotional health are not fully developed, the risks are particularly high.

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD

The good news is that any habit can be unlearned, and when it comes to stress management, starting with being kind in our own thoughts is key to good mental health and feelings of self-esteem.

— Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD

Stress Relief Strategies

Capanna-Hodge acknowledges the stress that youth and families are under, and she suggests that coping skills and time to unplug be done collectively. She says that there are plenty of options for daily stress reduction.

Take Time

"The first step to lowering our stress levels is to take 10 minutes everyday to calm our nervous system, which can be done with breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, biofeedback, prayer, etc. When our nervous system is more regulated, we are simply less reactive to stressors, and therefore when a stressor happens, we can better cope and problem-solve," Capanna-Hodge says.

Lead by Example

Kids are so open to learning ways to regulate their brain and body. Children start out in life connected to their body, and they learn much through co-regulating with their parents or modeling their behavior. If a parent is less reactive to the stress in their environment, then a child is more likely to display the same healthy responses.

Take Time to Power Down

Kids and teens take their cues from their parents and caregivers, so if we set aside time to power down and calm our brain and body, then kids will follow our lead. Making it part of your daily routine is critical for you and your child to give yourself self-care and reduce that stress.

Be Honest

Having open conversations about your own stressors and how you are managing them is important so your teen doesn’t fall into the perfection trap that seems to catch so many young people and their families.

Validation Goes a Long Way

Validating feelings and experiences while praising coping and problem-solving skills will help teens build those independent stress management skills.

Be Kind to Your Mind

Parents and caregivers should reinforce that kids have the ability to control their thoughts and need to be “kind to their mind.” We can be awfully hard on ourselves and make the worst of situations if we've adopted a habit of negative thinking.

"The good news is that any habit can be unlearned, and when it comes to stress management, starting with being kind in our own thoughts is key to good mental health and feelings of self-esteem," Capanna-Hodge says.

Don’t Get Stuck 

It is perfectly normal to feel stress, isolation, and overwhelm during this pandemic, but if a young person in your life is “stuck” in those feelings, then they need to get unstuck with intentionally adding exercise, brain-based exercises and tools (biofeedback, meditation, breathing exercises, etc.), eating nutrient-dense food, and prioritizing sleep and stress management.

Being consistent with these practices is the only way these integrative lifestyle changes will begin to calm the nervous system enough to reduce symptoms of stress and the risk of persistent anxiety and depression.

Help Is Always Available

A licensed mental health professional can help guide a parent and a child to healthy coping mechanisms for stress, emotional upset, or difficulties with regulation. "No one ever regrets getting help, they just regret when they don’t, so getting help from a therapist can really help to move the dial," says Capanna-Hodge.

What This Means For You

Whether you have children of your own or work with young ones, give them some grace during this time. We have all had to make some major adjustments, both professionally and personally, in an effort to navigate the new way of living introduced by the pandemic.

While some have already figured out their new normal, there are plenty who are still navigating the right route for coping and re-centering their lives. Teens cannot necessarily be expected to have adapted and adjusted as well or as quickly. Be intentional about how you approach transitions with them, and consider not only leading by example, but letting them know that all of their feelings are valid, especially during this tough time.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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