Mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, is now the No. 1 health problem facing adolescents in the U.S., exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that began nearly two years ago.

The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a 53-page health advisory, calling the challenges young people face “unprecedented” and “uniquely hard to navigate” with devastating effects on their mental health.

“There’s a tsunami of mental health challenges in young adults right now and how to treat that is a struggle,” says pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw. “A lot of what we are seeing now in kids is situational anxiety that has had a lot to do with COVID. We are also seeing a lot of kids that are triggered by the stress that’s happening with their friends and family.”

Some kids often don’t recognize their anxiety or depression for what it is and, instead, may think there is something wrong with them. Look for behaviors that indicate they are feeling anxious, including:

  • Crying
  • Irritability
  • Stomach aches or headaches
  • Clinginess
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating

Signs of depression in kids may include:

  • A change in mood: your teen or tween is feeling emotional, irritable or angry.
  • Changes in patterns of behavior: they’re sleeping more, sleeping less, there’s a sudden change in their friend group or in your child’s appearance.
  • Your child is withdrawn, spending less time with the family and more time in their room isolated from others, and not enjoying things that used to make them happy.
  • Trouble focusing or making choices; their grades suddenly drop.

At-home practices to ease anxiety and depression
With a shortage of mental health professionals locally and across the country, and long waiting lists for services, what can parents do to help their kids? Dr. Bradshaw says kids do better during times of emotional distress if they have a daily routine and focus on habits that will support a positive mindset.

“For example, exercising every single day. Getting regular cardiac exercise allows you to work off some of the adrenaline that feeds anxiety. Also, eating regular meals throughout the day that include a good protein source can keep the adrenaline from flowing quite so easily.”

Additional tips for reducing anxiety & depression in teens and adolescents include:

  • Getting 8-10 hours good quality sleep: Deep sleep, or REM sleep, restores the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions.
  • Practicing meditation: Meditation typically involves training the mind to focus on something specific in order to reach a state of calm and relaxation. There are apps and videos available that can help your teen learn how to do this.
  • Spending time with a pet: Studies show that petting and playing with animals reduces stress-related hormones, and these benefits can occur after just five minutes of interacting with a pet.
  • Spending time outside: Being present in green spaces significantly reduces cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Nature also boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness.

Dr. Bradshaw says it’s also important mentally for kids to practice gratitude. “Whether that means journaling things we feel good about, or making lists of things we’re looking forward to, or going around the dinner table at night and each saying one thing that made us happy that day — all of these factors together can help us turn from a really negative brain chemistry mix to a much more positive and calm neurochemical mix in our brain.”

Starting the conversation
Mental health experts say it’s important for parents and caregivers to reassure their kids that they’re cared for unconditionally and continue to offer support even if it’s initially declined. Encourage your teen or child to open up about any worries they may be having. Acknowledge that those concerns are real. Be supportive, but be careful not to burden your child with your own concerns and anxious thoughts.

If you and your teen have tried the techniques above and your child is still struggling, be sure to contact your doctor.