Q: Do you have any advice for how to support a teen heading to college in August after spending his senior year remote and unmotivated? I fear attending college will be an overwhelming transition after this past year, though he's excited to go. I don't want my fretting to cause him anxiety. Maybe a light year will have been a good thing and all will be well?

A: Congratulations on making it this far. Our high school students have uniquely suffered during the pandemic; even the most introverted teens have felt the sting of being separated from friends, teachers and hobbies, as well as having so many transitions stripped away. Proms, typical graduation ceremonies and other markers that keep high-schoolers motivated and excited were removed, and in their place were hours of screen time and isolation. If you had a recipe for how to depress and cause anxiety in a teen, it would look a lot like this pandemic.

First, normalize your teen’s feelings. My experience of coaching all types of families this past year has taught me that physics is very much at work in our teens: A body in motion tends to stay in motion, and a body not in motion tends to not move. I’ve seen this in teens’ bodies, and I’ve definitely seen it in their emotions. People are deeply social, and we orient our emotional lives around our attachments and groups. Subtle facial expressions, slight physical movements and even the smallest of statements from friends and teachers serve as tremendous motivators for teens. It’s so basic that we don’t know how important it is until it’s gone.

Your son has not permanently lost his motivation, though. You report that he’s excited to go to college (an appropriate emotion to feel), and even without a pandemic, leaving for college can be an anxiety-producing transition. One way to allay your own fears is to say something such as: “It’s typical to have two minds moving during changes like this. On the one hand, you’ve been alone, are used to that and may be feeling anxious that you’ll forget how to socialize. On the other hand, you are so excited to get out of here, meet new people and sit in actual classrooms again!”

You don’t have to offer solutions, nor do you need to cheerlead. You’re simply mixing emotions and bringing words to the emotions that come up.

As for all being well, we cannot guarantee how anything will go, but you can start helping your son to understand his body and how anxiety, dread and depression feel in it. Colleges and universities should be well-versed in situational depression and anxiety, but familiarize your son with the counseling center and the services it offers. You can’t force your son to talk to you (or do anything, really), but you don’t want to look for the hose in the midst of the fire. A bit of preparation can go a long way.

Because most teens are well-versed in apps, I would encourage him to find a mental wellness app that speaks to him. D’Amore Mental Health’s article titled “Best Mental Health Apps For Teens During Covid” is a good place to start. It’s good for you to be familiar with the signs of depression and anxiety in teens, because they often don’t present as sadness or worry. I like the site Hey Sigmund for more information; search for its article titled “Depression in Teens: The Warning Signs and How to Help Them Through.”

Finally, keep a check on your own anxiety and worries. Just like your son, you are going through a transition that may bring grief, worry, excitement and joy. Find your supports and focus on mindfulness. This will help you “catch” your emotions before you spill them all over your son. Remember: The goal isn’t for all to be well; the goal is to help ease your son — and yourself — into this new life. Good luck.

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