Positive Psychology for Teens in Troubled Times

It’s tough to be a positive teen. It’s been even tougher to be a positive teen during the COVID pandemic. The National Institutes of Health and other research institutions around world report that there has been a significant rise in anxiety and depression among adolescents since the outbreak of the pandemic. In a recently published report, data from 29 studies, with more than 80,000 participants globally, found prevalence estimates of one in four youth experiencing clinically elevated symptoms of depression, while one in five reported clinically elevated symptoms of anxiety.

The pandemic became a crisis of mental health that, for many reasons, escalated emotional distress among today’s children and teens. These conditions created stress beyond the fear that COVID-19 might be contracted, and also disrupted the development of adolescents. The pandemic created multilayered complications. Teens were also affected by altered support networks, including school and social. Students were often isolated from their peers and suffered academic losses due to learning online or in a restricted classroom environment. The resulting isolation was a major contributing factor to the mental health challenges experienced by so many teens during the pandemic.

As a rising high school senior and the co-founder of PositiviTeens® workshops, I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of students over the course of the past 18 months. I have also consulted with experts from the fields of child and adolescents psychology, psychiatry and health psychology. Experts I spoke to said that teens are more likely to experience anxiety, stress, and depression because of multiple losses, social isolation, as well as diminished expectations. It is possible to gain a deeper understanding of the lives that have been disrupted by examining the expectations teens had before the pandemic. It’s also a way to initiate authentic conversations about feelings of loss and anger.

Establishing a safe platform upon which to share emotions among teens, parents, and teachers is a key goal of the PositiviTeens® webinars I have co-hosted this year with my mom, Sherry Skyler Kelly, PhD, a psychologist who is an alumni of WBI. The webinars provided structured and evidence-based positive psychology approaches to promoting emotional awareness, as well as emotional flourishing. A powerful starting point has been Wholebeing Institute’s SPIRE model of whole-person happiness and well-being. The SPIRE model is easily understood and comprehensive. Its structure sets up a holistic view of well-being and happiness that focuses on “what’s working” or “what needs to be in balance,” rather than “what’s wrong.” The positive perspective of SPIRE is something teens can easily utilize as a way of fostering greater understanding of emotions, while facing the real-life stressors of being students during times of uncertainty.

I have shared the SPIRE method during webinars for high-school students in the United States as well as a webinar that was attended by more than 1000 students in China. I will host a webinar for Middle East teens this year. Here are some strategies and tips that I share with teens to promote positivity.


1. Track your social media usage. How much of your time are you willing to give up for scrolling through social-media posts? The average teen spends the equivalent of one day per week—roughly 24 hours—on social media sites. Research has identified a connection between the amount of time on social media and the level of anxiety and depression symptoms among teens.

2. Plan social time with friends well in advance.You will have something to look forward and structured socialization when you make concrete plans. Even if it’s outdoors or with masks on, connect with others in person.

3. Take action! Behavioral activation moves you forward. Goal mapping is one way to get started. Goal mapping is a way to start. Instead of setting long-term, idealistic goals, set short-term, realistic goals for success or change. You can create a map that includes your long-term goals at the top and short-term goals below. Also, include specific actions.

4. Exercise. Getting some form of exercise for at least 30–40 minutes a day is vital for emotional well-being as well as physical health. Your body and mind need to engage, as so much of your day is spent in class or online.

5. To monitor your well-being, use the SPIRE model. Begin by creating a chart with each SPIRE element in a journal. Each column should be a column: Spiritual, Physical. Intellectual. Relational. Emotional. Take a look at yourself and note in each column where you stand in each area. Do you feel like there is something missing? Perhaps you feel strong in one area but need support in another. Teens are often too focused on the Intellectual and Relational categories while neglecting to nurture their other pillars.

The pandemic has brought many challenges, but it also provided many opportunities for personal growth. The expansive resources available through WBI can help today’s teens emerge from this challenging journey with greater self-awareness, coping skills, and resilience.

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