Tween Mental Health in the Pandemic

January 27, 2022

Tweens have been through quite a bit during the pandemic. Do you sometimes wonder if the effects will impact then later on?

Starting around September, Open Arms Wellness, a mental health firm specializing in evidence-based mental health practices in the St. Louis area, has seen a significant increase in the number of 10 to 14-year-olds seeking treatment for depression and anxiety.

Signs of depression and anxiety: Effects on learning

Due to the global response to the pandemic, children and young teens have been asked to make lifestyle changes that not many people were prepared to address.  They have been exposed to uncertainties regarding health and loss.  These changes, combined with the existing stressors of life can increase their risks of mood changes, disrupted sleep habits, eating disorders, and other common symptoms of mental and behavioral problems. An escalation of fear and phobias due to grief and worry over bad things that could happen are both a cause and sign of general anxiety.

This looks different for every child. 

Some kids talk openly about their feelings and clearly express to their parents if they are having an issue. For others, it might be harder to tell. Symptoms might present as irritability, lack of interest, too much sleep or too little, too much eating or not enough.

A young boy lays in bed. This reflects conversations had in teen therapy in St. Louis, MO. Our teen therapists in St. Louis, MO offer CBT for teens and help teens with anxiety See how online teen therapy in Missouri can help.

Kids in this age range are highly peer-focused. After spending a year socially distant, many returned to school surprised at the difficulties they encountered. Many of these children grew up in a close knit, active community with smiles and friends. During the pandemic, as with adults, they attempted to continue this relationship in Zoom sessions, both structured and unstructured. However, as we all know, this is not easy as adults, much less for 12-year-olds that still need a significant amount of play. Others went to school but with COVID in full swing, experienced social distance learning and device driven teaching.  

The impacts we see on teens and tweens

While digital classes have been a great solution to address the need for social distancing, these methods can not fulfill all of a child's needs for education, growth, and health.  Virtual spaces lack the opportunities for children to collaborate and get constructive input from their peers.   The trust and bond that comes from real-time feedback with adults and caregivers can take longer to build. Ensuring children and teens experience physical and tactile activities are important to their development.  

This year, so many of the children were excited to return to their lives and school but what they encountered was a socially distant middle school. We all remember middle school. It wasn’t an easy time for many of us, especially socially. Today our children are experiencing these years of school, without the smiles and facial cues we have always depended on.

Peer interaction is essential for children.

Two children use a computer. This reflects concepts of tween therapy in St Louis, MO. Our teen therapists in St. Louis, MO can help tweens and teens through CBT and play therapy in St Louis, MO.

For children so in need of a peer group and so in need of approval from their peers, these easy smiles and other forms of visual communication are particularly important. The sensory stimulation that is found in classrooms and play spaces are also a key to youth development and mental well-being. Add in the lack of free movement at many schools during lunchtime, as well as plastic barriers between them and their peers and it isn’t hard to imagine why many younger teens are feeling lonely and depressed.


From a young age, we engage socially via facial gestures.

For example, watch what happens to this baby during a brief period in which the mother stops communicating via facial expressions  The baby tries harder and harder to get a smile and positive response from their mother. How does the baby fair after just a few moments? She melts down.

It isn’t hard to translate this to our young teens, so keyed into peer approval. Absent smiles and friendly looks, or more accurately, with no visible smiles or friendly looks from their peers, our children feel more isolated. Minus these unspoken communication methods, they have a harder time parsing their social interactions and feeling comfortable in their new or rekindled friendships.

Other 2021 Factors

Children aged 10-14 are coming of age during a pandemic. But they are also coming of age during Tiktok and other pervasive social media. No other age group in history has experienced such a digitally-focused upbringing. Data shows social media is especially detrimental to teenagers.

What is the answer?

A photo shows plastic barriers. This reflects concepts discussed in teen therapy in St Louis, MO. Our teen therapists in St. Louis, MO can help teens with anxiety.

The answer is complicated. With the resurgence of COVID variants, we can’t just take off our masks. One thing we can do is weigh the effectiveness and costs of some socially distant practices. For instance, plastic barriers do not seem to be effective in stopping the spread of COVID, 

It isn’t hard to imagine that these same plexiglass barriers can make our children feel isolated. 

Another thing we can do as parents is provide unstructured chances to play with peers outdoors where transmission rates are far lower. Encouraging children to sign up for clubs or sports (assuming you feel they sufficiently adhere to basic protocols) can also provide social support.  

Importance of physical activity to reduce stress, depression, anxiety

Ultimately, it helps to remember that as parents, we also can provide support.  Roughhousing with children at this age can help strengthen your relationship and release stress throughout the household. A little tickling and laughter can go a long way in easing tensions and resetting your kids. 

And as always, it helps to remind children that this isn’t going to go on forever, right? While it’s hard to know when that will be because of frequently evolving variants, lockdowns, and protocols, there is plenty of evidence that we are on the right track. Science, vaccines, and masks DO make us safer and can help you provide concrete reassurance to your kids that this will end eventually.

What else can help children during this time?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one form of therapy that is used to treat anxiety or depression, particularly in older children. It helps the child change negative thoughts into more positive, effective ways of thinking, leading to more effective behavior. Behavior therapy for anxiety may involve helping children cope with and manage anxiety symptoms while gradually exposing them to their fears so as to help them learn that bad things do not occur.

Treatments can also include a variety of ways to help the child feel less stressed and be healthier like nutritious food, physical activity, sufficient sleep, predictable routines, and social support.”

Begin Counseling in St. Louis, MO with Open Arms Wellness

At Open Arms Wellness, our clinicians specialize in working with children, tweens, and teens. We offer individual and group sessions, both virtually and in-person. Our specialities include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Play therapy
  • Family therapy

Call today for a free pre-consult to see if one of our clinicians will be a good fit for you or your children. 

We know it’s awful not seeing your child thrive, especially for reasons outside of your control. Ultimately, you know your child. Follow your gut. If your child isn’t thriving, give us a call, we can help. At Open Arms, we offer constructive solutions for intractable issues. Contact us today to learn more.