By Marilyn E. Gootman, Ed.D., author of When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens About Grieving & Healing (Updated 3rd Edition)
These are incredibly unsettling, complicated times for us all. COVID-19 has overwhelmed us with fear, isolation, and grief, and the death of George Floyd has intensified the grief and fear and compounded it with rage.
Our teens are particularly vulnerable because this situation goes straight to the heart of their unique developmental challenges: forging bonds with peers, separating from parents, and establishing their own sense of power.
Imagine what it must be like for them: just when they are trying to develop their own sense of identity by becoming less dependent on us and relying instead on their friends for standards, approval, and support, they are stuck at home with parents, physically cut off from their friends. Some are grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19; all are grieving the loss of their normal lives—social connections, school experiences, celebrations, sports, and other activities.
In the grand scheme of things, compared to the horrors of the disease and its impact, teens’ concerns may not seem so serious to us adults. But they are. Pain is pain, and no pain should be trivialized. Just because there are larger problems in the world, or even if someone has not personally lost a loved one, that does not mean that an individual’s suffering should be minimized. We are all entitled to grieve our losses without others judging us.
So, what can we do to help our teens?
Let Them Vent
It’s not easy. Seeing our kids hurting while we are also hurting is painful and uncomfortable. But if we don’t let teens vent, things can get worse. Try to think of anger like steam building up in a pipe. It builds and builds, placing more and more pressure on the pipe. If a vent is not opened to let out some of the steam, what happens? The pipe explodes. And so it is with our kids. Unacknowledged anger can fester inside them until they explode, perhaps with destructive actions or even physical sickness. Try to set aside some time just to hear teens out, giving them your undivided attention.
They have a right to be angry with all that is happening.
Reassuring teens that their feelings are normal and that there is nothing wrong with them for grieving their losses can be a tremendous relief. They are not being selfish no matter what else is happening in the world. It makes sense for them to be sad and angry that their routines and social connections have been disrupted.
Of course, we adults are also anxious, and it’s okay to admit that we are stressed, grieving, and feeling uncertain. But it’s important that we stay calm and not hijack teens’ feelings with our own. They need space to express their feelings without comparisons.
Empower Them By Helping Them Channel Their Anger into Constructive Actions
Explore with teens how they can make the world a better place, perhaps by speaking out, advocating for a cause, raising money, petitioning, getting involved in a political campaign, and so on.
Right now, the problems in our lives seem overwhelming and may be daunting to a young person, but we can reassure teens that every individual can make a difference. As Barack Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”
Empower Them By Allowing Them to Make Informed Choices
Safety during COVID-19 is a serious issue, but teens don’t like to be told what they have to do, even if it’s for their own well-being. Rather than decreeing what they have to do to stay safe, we can empower them to figure it out for themselves. How? By steering them toward reliable, accurate information: news articles from vetted sources, graphs and other visual displays, public health messages by people they admire and respect. Then they can make independent, wise decisions about adopting safe practices such as wearing masks and physical distancing.
Empower Them By Depending on Them for Help
Meeting teens’ need to establish their own sense of power can be a gift to the family as well as to society. Letting teens know that we need their help, perhaps by cooking, making masks, or doing other projects they might enjoy but not ordinarily do, gives them a positive sense of control. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Encourage Social Connections
Many skills are learned from peers: social and emotional skills, conflict resolution, and intimacy, among others. Peers can help teens process their feelings and can also validate that they are not alone. If there ever were a time to show some leniency with social media, this is it. Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and Zoom get-togethers and other social media connections can be lifesavers.
Yes, life is hard right now, very hard for all of us. But with a little wisdom and understanding, we’ll get through it and be even stronger—and so will our kids.
Marilyn E. Gootman, Ed.D., is founder of Gootman Education Associates, an educational consulting company that provides workshops and seminars for parents and educators focusing on successful strategies for raising and teaching children. Dr. Gootman has been in the teaching profession for over 25 years, and her teaching experiences range from elementary school to the university level. The author of numerous books and articles, she is known nationally for her advocacy efforts on behalf of children, parents, and teachers. Her media appearances include CNN and other major networks as well as radio and television broadcasts throughout the United States and Canada. Marilyn and her husband, Elliot, are the parents of three grown children.
Marilyn is the author of When a Friend Dies.
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