I recently read an opinion piece by CNN columnist Scottie Andrew, titled “Why Teens May Never Be The Same After The Pandemic,” where she highlights the losses teens, especially graduating seniors, face as they wrap up this school year in quarantine.[i]
She’s right. Our graduating seniors may never be the same after the pandemic. All 2020 classes, proms, and graduations have been cancelled. End of year sports banquets, final dances, music performances, and academic competitions have all suddenly disappeared without warning. And here our teens stand, on the cusp of adulthood, with their once predictable paths wiped clean. There are so many losses to be grieved, not to mention the lingering anxiety from the ever-present uncertainty of this pandemic.
It’s a lot for a young person, let alone an adult, to manage. And yet here we are.
Andrew’s concern is that our teens will lose their sense of self and will suffer long-term trauma from the losses and uncertainty they’re experiencing. I can’t agree. I believe these young people have the strength in them to rise to the challenge of navigating this difficult situation and learn life lessons as they unfold in real time. It’s important that we listen to and validate their struggles, but we’re doing them a disservice if we indulge the belief that this shouldn’t be happening. This is the perfect opportunity for us to help initiate them into the uncertainties and unpredictability of adulthood. They need us, their parents, teachers, and mentors, to lead them with compassion and courage through the next unknown steps.
It’s true that teens are primarily tuned into their peers, relying on them to curate their own feelings and opinions. But, what a gift to have a sudden and necessary shift back toward the family as the main influence! Family relationships require more of us; more patience, more charity, more long-suffering, more gratitude for the small things. Our graduates might step into adulthood better off, not in spite of, but because of their extended time at home. When they’re needed by parents and siblings to contribute in the home and help keep things afloat, they will be more grounded and more aware of others. Although they may not choose a night (or sixty) at home with mom and dad when there are better options, when they can’t opt out, they just might settle into some extra time with parents who might know a thing or two about how to navigate an unexpected set-back.
Yes, for a teen, being cut off from friends and fun activities can be isolating, increase anxiety, and magnify the uncertainty we are all feeling. However, I can’t think of a better time to be open with your teens about how difficult it is to absorb disappointment and navigate the unknown. They need to see that the helplessness and confusion they may feel is completely normal and that they are not alone.
We can work together with them to practice healthy ways of identifying and managing these big feelings. Learning how to sit with discomfort is an important adult skill to develop (many of us adults are still working on it), so why not start now? The home is the perfect place for them to discover how they can best manage strong emotions and to find out if binging on Netflix or taking a walk works better for them.
Of course, we all want the best for our kids. We want to join them in celebration of their hard work and achievements with our familiar rites of passage. But we must be careful not to hijack their experience with our expectations of what kind of memories they must carry with them into adulthood. It’s not helpful to lament the memories they won’t be making because these memories are the ones we carry from high school. Even though they were anticipating attending proms, graduations, and senior trips, we can encourage them to create unique memories of their own.
We would be wise to remember that our memories are special to us because they are the experiences that helped shape us. This unexpected pandemic is actively shaping all us in ways we can hardly understand. Our young people are being asked to give up something they were promised. They are being asked to step up and keep everyone safe by staying home. Can they feel purpose in being the graduating class who found creative ways to celebrate their achievements while respecting the safety of others?
Stay home, stay safe is about investing in something bigger than yourself. In a phase of life when teens are typically very self-centered, this is the perfect time for them to practice living for others, not just for themselves. This pandemic has made one thing very clear: it’s about all of us. We’re in this together and we need to sacrifice for each other so we can come out stronger on the other side. This is a great message for a high school graduate to internalize. What better way to prepare them for success in the world and in family life than giving up something good for something better?
This is new territory for all of us. And, since this is the road less traveled, our teens can practice creative problem-solving. They can find ways to make a difficult situation better, and maybe even good. It’s great practice for ‘adulting’, as some call it. With more time at their disposal they’ll have plenty of room to tune in to what they and their loved ones need and discover the best way to work things out.
Yes, there are losses, and our teens will need our support as they grieve the losses. But, more importantly, they need to hear us talk about their current circumstances and their futures with hope and confidence. They need us to shepherd them toward resilience, because that is exactly what this situation calls for. If anything, they’ll be more prepared for adult life than perhaps many of us were at their age.
In short, it’s time for us as parents and mentors to show our graduating seniors what it means to grow up. If it goes well, they will be more grounded, more creative, more resilient, more selfless, and more aware, and we’ll be grateful that our teens aren’t the same after the pandemic.
About the author
Jody Young Steurer is the co-host of the podcast, “Your Place at the Table” (https://www.yourplaceatthetable.net). Jody graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and spent a few years as a corporate trainer. She has spent the past twenty-plus years as a full-time stay at home mom with her four children. She and her husband, Geoff Steurer, have been married for 23 years. She enjoys meditation, snow skiing, gardening, hiking, and great conversation. She currently serves in the Young Women’s presidency in her ward.