Six Warning Signs Your Students Are Struggling with the Pandemic

By: Tim Elmore

I wonder if adults fully comprehend what’s going on inside the minds of kids today. Mental health issues were already mounting among those in Generation Z, but the Pandemic has taken its toll and left them in worse mental and emotional health than ever. In Japan, more people died from suicide than COVID-19 in 2020.

Sometimes, we can overreact to the stress levels and angst our teens are feeling. 

According to journalist Julie Jargon, “Remote school has created a whole new group of people for teachers to manage during class time: parents.” Yep, moms and dads have a hard time resisting the urge to over-function in virtual classrooms. Some just can’t help themselves. One teacher reported about 25% of her students have a parent seated next to them at their laptops. They often jump into the discussion by pointing out that a student in the classroom isn’t wearing her mask correctly or that they don’t think the students understood the question or that their child wants to say something. Some schools are sending memos to parents reminding them of proper Zoom etiquette and that they “should not swear” while near the virtual classroom. It’s hard for some parents to figure out how to support their children without overdoing it.

So, why do we overdo it?

We’re Afraid and Want to Fix It

It’s because we’re so scared that our kids won’t keep up and will get stressed out. Many of us (teachers and parents) wonder about our kid’s anxiety levels. Early this fall, the CDC reported that one in four American young adults has contemplated suicide in the last month. Nationally, only 40% of students with emotional, behavioral, and mental health disorders graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76%. Over 50% of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities ages 14 and older drop out of high school.

One teen named Sierra documented her struggle this way:

The trouble started in 8th grade. As soon as I started the year, I knew something was wrong with me. I was exhausted all the time and losing weight. By December, I was only doing half-days at school because I was too tired to stay the whole day. I started getting headaches, a lot of them, which turned into painful migraines. I saw so many doctors, specialists of many different kinds, but no one could tell me what was wrong. By this point, people started looking at me funny, and I could feel myself losing friends as people asked me what was wrong, to which I had no answer. 

I distinctly remember having my first suicidal thought in the 8th grade: I was crumpled up on the bathroom floor, crying over a text message. The thought of dying threaded itself throughout my thoughts, but I soon dismissed it.”

Needless to say, it was awful for Sierra. 

The good news is Sierra eventually made it through middle and high school. She’s now a college student majoring in psychology. I’m thankful she got the help she desperately needed.  But she is quick to add her parents were hesitant to take some of the needed steps because they just didn’t understand anxiety or panic attacks. 

They didn’t recognize some of the warning signs.

Six Warning Signs

This year, 2020, has been quite a year. We were blindsided by the pandemic, by protests, by political polarization, and by panic attacks. Among other items, these have left some teens in despair about life after graduation. What will their futures look like? 

Let me suggest six warning signs that can be spotted in a student who struggles with mental illness due to the pandemic. It could be anxiety (even an anxiety disorder), depression, panic attacks, or hopelessness. The following are signals that medical doctors offer to help spot a student struggling with the pandemic:

1. Significant Weight Loss

Often when students are stressing over their safety or their health, they can lose their appetite and miss meals altogether. Seeing they’ve lost significant weight without trying to do so can be a warning sign they need help.

2. Drastic Change in Mood

While teens can be moody simply because their brains are maturing and hormones are raging, significant mood swings can be a warning sign that there is more at stake than their development. Do you see extreme highs and lows?

3. Withdrawal (or the Opposite)

Adolescents can react to stress and anxiety in one of two ways. They will often withdraw from social contact, or they will compensate for their loneliness by relying on social contact too much. They are trying to fill an emotional void.

4. Change in Academic Performance

Frequently, a warning sign is an apathetic attitude toward assignments and classes. They stop caring about their grades or about meeting deadlines. This can mean they’re in despair and just don’t care about preparing for the future.

5. Alcohol and Drug Use

Students turn to drugs or drinking either due to peer pressure or to help them endure their hopeless feelings about COVID-19 or the future job market. Look for tangible clues externally or in their conduct that they’re under the influence.

6. Addictive Coping Mechanisms

One signal that students are seeking help is addictive behavior. It’s a coping mechanism to help them get through the day. Look for addictions (vaping, video games, social media, etc.) signaling they’re in survival mode.

Be Redemptive, Not Resentful

Once you spot a warning signal, talk about it with your student. Make your goal to support, not to punish. This is key. Check your motive. Is it resentment or redemption? Teens can spot whether your motivation is to appear like a perfect family or to genuinely help them. The best leaders seek to restore, not to reprove. They want to help, not hide.

Winston Churchill modeled this strategy as well as anyone I’ve known. Before he served as Britain’s Prime Minister, he was Home Secretary with the responsibility for police, prisons, and prisoners. At the time, prisons were atrocious, rat-infested concrete buildings. Churchill focused on the future (the desired outcome) rather than the past (the punishment fitting the crime). Having been a prisoner himself in South Africa, he believed sentences should be redemptive, not merely punitive. He said, “No lad between 16-21 ought to be sent to prison for mere punishment. Every sentence should be conceived with the object of pulling him together and bracing him for the world: it should be disciplinary and educative rather than penal.” Churchill was ahead of his time. He was a pioneer of prison reform—installing libraries, classes, and skill training.

When he began his prison reform efforts, there were 12,376 boys under 21 incarcerated. Within seven years, the number had dropped to under 4,000. He made prisons better by making them about the redemption rather than the resentment of young offenders.

One resource we’ve created for fostering meaningful conversations between leaders and students is Habitudes for Social and Emotional Learning. To learn more, CLICK HERE

Six Warning Signs Your Students Are Struggling with the Pandemic