Ongoing uncertainties of COVID have been challenging for teens

Resilience and adaptability in the face of stress and, well, pure, simple boredom. For many teens, this is life during COVID.

For Grade 12 student Oren Gorber, the pandemic has meant his final year of high school is missing all the events he was looking forward to, from movie nights and sports tournaments to the end-of-year-graduation party.

“I miss hanging out with friends, just going to the park,” says Gorber during a break from his online chemistry class.

One unexpected bonus?

“I’ve become more focused,” he adds, explaining that online classes move so quickly that he had to adapt and learn to study more efficiently. “I had to improve my study habits.”

Gorber manages stress by staying on top of work and by playing online video games with friends. Another outlet is his part-time job at a take-out restaurant.

“My co-workers were very welcoming, and they quickly became friends.” Having this opportunity to socialize outside of school is a bonus, but also a stress factor since working with the public can possibly expose him and his family to COVID. And he is well-aware of risk factors and statistics since he has a parent who works for Health Canada.

For Liat Fluxgold, a 15-year-old in Grade 10, the pandemic has left her “Zoomed out” due to spending so much time on her computer and in online school.

“One class we had to stay on for four hours. I don’t mind getting assignments to do at home, but online school is not good. It’s hard right now to not go on your computer — everything is on your computer. We’re on the computer the whole day because of school. My overall screen time per day is definitely up,” said Fluxgold. “You find yourself bored.”

It’s a refrain Rabbi David Rotenberg has also heard.

“When teens found themselves not going back to school, they were home and bored … Some were nervous, but mostly just bored and didn’t know what to do with themselves,” said Rotenberg.

Rotenberg manages NCSY in Ottawa, an international Jewish youth movement whose official mission is to inspire the Jewish future. In a practical sense, what they do is endeavour to be the place where teens can engage in Jewish education, social activity, volunteering and leadership.

“Our teens were on March Break last year, but we were able to pivot quite quickly and move things online and then start planning and developing programs specifically for online,” said Rotenberg. “During COVID we have continued with Torah High, in person as much as possible. Our clubs and casual learning programs have mostly moved online. We’ve done probably hundreds of activities since last March. We’ve also squeezed in a few in person things, like an outdoor Shabbat lunch.”

To combat boredom (and keep any possible anxieties at bay), organizations like NCSY offer a full slate of virtual programs.

“We offer weekly games nights, challah baking tutorials, classes on all sorts of topics. We got very creative with it. It was really welcome for many of the teens we work with,” said Rotenberg. “There were teens who did virtual programs with us every night of the week.”

At Kehillat Beth Israel (KBI), youth engagement professional Laura Dimitroff hasn’t known anything but virtual events — she started in September, so everything’s been over Zoom. She tries to keep programs relaxed — no one wants to talk about COVID-19.

“For Hannukah and Passover we painted ceramics. We’ve planted parsley seeds and did a Zoom yoga event,” listed Dimitroff. “We’ve teamed up with Temple Israel for virtual Dungeons and Dragons … we’re going to write greeting cards for the residents of Hillel Lodge soon.”

Despite staying busy, statistics show 46 per cent of teens have shown a new or worsening mental health condition during the pandemic. Studies suggest that one in three girls and one in five teen boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety over the last year. The pandemic has forced teens to be removed from normal social, physical, and educational interactions — so mental health problem aren’t entirely unexpected.

Pediatrician Dr. Karen Palayew explains that like what we are seeing in individuals of all ages, the degree of resilience and optimism vary from one child to the next, and even from one day to the next.

“For many children, the ongoing uncertainties, fear and social isolation of COVID have been extremely challenging. The ever-changing regulations, with opening and closing of schools, and varying limits on indoor and outdoor social gatherings, are stressful for everyone,” Dr. Palayew explains.

Dr. Palayew adds that over the course of the pandemic, CHEO psychiatry, community pediatricians, and family doctors have seen a dramatic increase in mental health issues in children of all ages, including severe depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

“It is important for parents to check in with their children and have open discussions with them about how they are feeling,” she says. “Let them know that they are not alone with their struggles, and that you are there for them to share their feelings.”

But, as Rotenberg says, teens may be better prepared than adults to ride out the final waves.

“Early on, we reached out to teens and offered them the opportunity to speak one on one by Zoom to see how they were dealing with the pandemic and be somebody who could be there for them,” said Rotenberg.

“I did find there were some who were really nervous about the pandemic, but it wasn’t the majority who were that way. I think that part of it was this sort of sense that if you stay home, stay in your bubble, you’re pretty safe. The fact that they could do school and see their friends online and then just stay home, I think some of them that was the reality setting in, that this was for the long haul.”

After all — for teens, you can still do many of their favourite things — watch TV, play video games, hang out with friends online— all with slight adjustments.

“A lot of young people are quite resilient,” said Rotenberg. “I’ve found them to be remarkably resilient during this time.”

Fluxgold’s still planning to head to summer camp in Seattle this year, practices karate on her own about 12 hours a week and has organized her own weekly virtual Settlers of Catan board game night with her friends.

While Gorber, who is considering a possible career in education, has plans to return to the Soloway JCC as a camp counsellor. He is also in the process of deciding on what university to attend in September and has been accepted in programs at both Carleton and Ottawa University as well as Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

“I’m excited to see where university will lead me – I don’t know what the future has in store, but I am excited.”

Teens in Ottawa are fortunate that organizations have stepped up their game and offered an assortment of activities, and have helped many navigate this difficult and turbulent time together.

Editor’s note: For families with children needing extra support, it is important to reach out to your child’s health care provider. For some advice, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has put out an excellent resource titled "Mental Health During COVID-19: Signs Your Child May Need More Support"