Uncertainty has been the theme of many adolescents’ experiences for more than a year, due to the school closures and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not knowing — sometimes from one day to the next — if school would be in person or virtual became routine. Being unable to see friends in person and socialize prevented young people from performing one of the most integral tasks of adolescence — connecting with peers. The pandemic and its ensuing shutdown have taken an emotional toll on many young people. Adults need to keep a few key points in mind as they strive to maintain their child’s well-being.
First, according to a 2021 presentation, “COVID Impacts on Adolescent Mental Health,” by Dr. Aaron Weiner, school is teens’ “everything.” It is where they explore friendships, engage with people their age and connect with caring adults. It is where they learn about themselves and develop skills and talents such as athletics, the arts and technology. School is where they learn about the world, society and where they fit in.
Second, young people do not yet have the long record of life experiences as do adults. Life’s challenges teach us to realize that things do not always go as planned, but usually turn out OK. We develop tools and strategies to help us get through our struggles. And, we become good at looking for alternate options if our plans fall through. COVID-19 was a brand-new adventure for everyone, young and old alike. However, most teens have not been around long enough to have navigated through challenges, struggles and the subsequent successes that show life does indeed go on.
Third, according to the 2019 article “What’s Going on in the Teenage Brain?” by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the teen brain is still under construction. The part of the brain that helps to control emotions and to think in abstract terms is still growing. In the 2016 article “Teen Brain: Behaviors, Problem Solving and Decision Making,” the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports that teens live in the moment, guided more by emotion than rational thinking. As a result, the adolescent brain does not work the same way as the mature adult brain. It comes as no surprise, then, that the impacts of COVID-19, school closures and other restrictions — even as we begin to emerge from them — have taken a huge toll on youth.
Communicate with L.O.V.E.
In a presentation during the 2021 Commonwealth Prevention Alliance’s annual conference, Aaron Weiner shared strategies on how adults can support youth during the pandemic as well as in future challenging times. He suggests that parents and adults communicate with “L.O.V.E.” to connect with the teens in their lives.
1. Listen. Let the young person talk about their feelings and experiences. Ask open-ended questions, those that require more than a yes or no response to help them explore their thoughts. Listening also shows that you are seeking to understand better. Re-state or summarize what you hear them saying. This also demonstrates your willingness to see the world from their vantage point. Saying “Tell me more about that” or “What I hear you saying is ... “ are examples of how you can do this.
2. Offer. Provide your input, but do not lecture or tell. Weiner suggests the “feedback sandwich” technique where you ask if you can share some of your thoughts, give the input, then ask for their reactions to it. “May I share some ideas with you on how you might handle this?” is a way to get the young person’s permission to give some input.
3. Validate. Show the teen that his or her feelings are important and real. Avoid criticizing or downplaying. Validation helps a young person to see himself or herself as capable and confident. They learn that they can trust feelings. You might say something like, “You feel like your whole world went topsy-turvy this year.”
4. Empathize. Try to walk in the other person’s shoes. Step out of the role of seeing the world through adult eyes and look at the world through their eyes. Saying something like, “Learning from home has been difficult for you,” can go a long way in helping a young person feel supported and understood.
While it has been an unprecedented year for all generations, the COVID-19 pandemic is probably not the only challenging or stressful time that young people will experience in their lifetimes. While many situations are out of our control, the way we manage them and the perspective we take as adults will help equip young people to face future difficult times as well.