It’s tough to be a positive teen. It’s been even tougher to be a positive teen during the COVID pandemic. Statistics from the National Institutes of Health, as well as other research institutions around the world, report a significant increase in depression and anxiety among adolescents since the start of the pandemic. In a recently published report, data from 29 studies, with more than 80,000 participants globally, found prevalence estimates of one in four youth experiencing clinically elevated symptoms of depression, while one in five reported clinically elevated symptoms of anxiety.
The pandemic became a crisis of mental health that, for many reasons, escalated emotional distress among today’s children and teens. The conditions not only created stress beyond the fear of contracting COVID-19, but also disrupted the developmental course of adolescence. Compounding the multilayered complications of the pandemic were the significantly altered supportive frameworks for teens: school and social life. In addition to losses of academic achievement related to being either online or learning via a limited classroom environment, students were largely separated from their peer groups. The resulting isolation was a major contributing factor to the mental health challenges experienced by so many teens during the pandemic.
As a rising high school senior and the co-founder of PositiviTeens® workshops, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of students over the course of the past 18 months. Additionally, I have consulted with experts in the fields of child and adolescent psychology, health psychology, psychiatry, and education. According to the experts I spoke with, the heightened stress, anxiety, and depression among teens stem from multiple losses, social isolation, and diminished expectations. Examining the types of expectations teens had about their lives before the pandemic, and what expectations they have now, is one way to gain a deeper understanding of lives thrown off balance. It’s also a way to initiate authentic conversations about feelings of loss and anger.
Establishing a safe platform upon which to share emotions among teens, parents, and teachers is a key goal of the PositiviTeens® webinars I have co-hosted this year with my mom, Sherry Skyler Kelly, PhD, a psychologist who is an alumni of WBI. The webinars provided structured and evidence-based positive psychology approaches to promoting emotional awareness, as well as emotional flourishing. A powerful starting point has been Wholebeing Institute’s SPIRE model of whole-person happiness and well-being. The SPIRE model is easily understood and comprehensive. Its structure sets up a holistic view of well-being and happiness that focuses on “what’s working” or “what needs to be in balance,” rather than “what’s wrong.” The positive perspective of SPIRE is something teens can easily utilize as a way of fostering greater understanding of emotions, while facing the real-life stressors of being students during times of uncertainty.
I have shared the SPIRE model during webinars for high school students in the United States and, recently, during a webinar for more than a thousand students in China. Later this year, I will be co-hosting a webinar for teens in the Middle East. Here are some of the strategies and tips I share with teens for promoting positivity.
1. Track your social media usage. How much of your life are you giving up to scrolling through social media posts? The average teen spends the equivalent of one day per week—roughly 24 hours—on social media sites. Research has identified a connection between the amount of time on social media and the level of anxiety and depression symptoms among teens.
2. Schedule social time with friends in advance. Making concrete plans not only gives you something to look forward to, but also provides structured socialization in person. Even if it’s outdoors or with masks on, connect with others in person.
3. Take action! Behavioral activation moves you forward. One way to start is with goal mapping. Try taking long-term idealistic goals and make them reachable by starting with short-term realistic goals for achievement or change. Make a map with your end goals at the top of the page and short-term goals below, along with specific actions to be taken along the way.
4. Exercise. Getting some form of exercise for at least 30–40 minutes a day is vital for emotional well-being as well as physical health. Because so much of the day is spent sitting in class or online, your body and mind need to engage.
5. Use the SPIRE model to monitor your well-being. Start by making a chart in a journal with a column for each SPIRE element: Spiritual, Physical, Intellectual, Relational, and Emotional. Check in with yourself and write down within each column how you are functioning in each of these areas. Ask yourself, is something missing or off balance? Maybe you need support for one area, while you are feeling strong in another area? Often, teens are heavily loaded in the Intellectual and Relational categories, yet not nurturing themselves with the other pillars of well-being.
While the pandemic has presented many challenges, it has also presented many opportunities for personal growth. The expansive resources available through WBI can help today’s teens emerge from this challenging journey with greater self-awareness, coping skills, and resilience.
Kaitlyn E. Kelly
Kaitlyn E. Kelly is the 18-year-old co-founder of PositiviTeens® Workshops. In 2018, Kaitlyn was personally impacted by a high school shooting in her childhood hometown of Parkland, Florida. That day, she witnessed, through live social media feeds, the unfolding violence upon friends and former neighbors while she sat in her school one town over. This secondary trauma, as well as the developmental cost of violence depicted in consumer-entertainment platforms, inspired her to take action to address the psychosocial impact of the violence, depersonalization, bullying, and negativity that permeates social media. Kaitlyn and her mother, Dr. Sherry Kelly, developed an empowering program of positive psychology and Cognitive-Behavioral strategies to support and educate students, teachers, and parents, while providing evidence-based interventions to promote greater emotional resilience. Kaitlyn has co-presented PositiviTeens® webinars to audiences in the United States and China. PositiviTeens.com