• Keely Kalama-Lakey

The Pandemic's Effect on Teens

Ideas to Help Them Stay Positive and Resilient

Communication has been my most effective survival strategy for raising our three teenage boys. But the intensity, uncertainty, and drawn-out nature of the COVID pandemic seemed to wear us down, creating issues deeper than teenage rebellion and making me doubt my ability to talk them through it all.

My concerns increased about ten months into the pandemic when my most happy-go-lucky boy started acting out in unusual ways. At first, his behavior seemed like typical teenager defiance, disconnecting emotionally and blowing off responsibilities. We talked it out, but then he admitted something else: he’d been obsessed for weeks with fears of dying and imagining horrible scenarios. Considering the 24/7 news about COVID deaths, his concern wasn’t that surprising. It was just highly unusual for this kid, who wonders why people freak out about anything, to have overwhelming fears keeping him up every night.

While we were able to get him to a better place, my mom worry meter was still high. Was this crisis and isolation turning an upbeat kid into an anxious one? I knew just enough about the effects of trauma to know it was possible. What could I do to keep my kids on the positive side of hope and help ensure their emotional resilience?

I reached out to the smartest, coolest guy I know who has talked to more teenagers, in person and through his books, than most of us put together. Chris Crutcher is a mental health therapist and award-winning, bestselling author of young adult fiction. I was lucky enough to work with him years ago, and he’s always stayed available for adults who need input about kids. Crutcher was one of the therapists who helped students at Stoneman Douglas High School after the shootings. While he says the pandemic is a less harsh circumstance for teens, he sees similarities in the aftereffects. He explains, “Kids were fundamentally changed. Their sense of immortality was gone, and it scared them.”

He offers solid strategies for parents to help their teenagers through this crisis, and it starts with understanding their extra challenge.

What’s Going On?

Crutcher says the stress from the unpredictability of COVID adds to the uncertainty teens already face. Wondering what comes next in life is a top concern for young people, and the “two symptoms piled on each other are no fun.” Their rights of passage to adulthood aren’t available either, such as prom, adventures with friends, first romances, graduation, and other extracurricular activities. Crutcher explains, “As crazy as being a teenager is, there are markers to hold on to. A lot of those markers have been erased or blurred.”

The chance to try out their independence with friends and other outside influences disappeared too. “When you're a teenager, one of the huge developmental things is pushing away, no matter how great your parents,” he says. “The whole deal is ‘I'm here in this place now, and I'm pushing away. I'm going to find out who I am.’” Instead of having those opportunities, kids have been isolated at home, hearing about illness and death instead.

Crutcher recommends letting kids talk about their concerns as much as they want. Allow them to ask questions and articulate their fears, which can sometimes make their worries easier to handle.

Get Their Input

An empowering step in challenging situations is to brainstorm solutions together. Crutcher says engaging kids in problem solving and allowing them to express ideas without judgment helps give them a sense of control. If they’re frustrated by how adults have handled things, ask for their ideas about what can be done better. They can do research and share their ideas. Looking for solutions puts them in the driver’s seat. He explains, “If you feel like you can change what's making you feel despondent or depressed, that's your first bit of traction.”

This also helps me keep their development on a positive track, encouraging critical thinking skills and accepting them as young adults whose ideas and opinions matter. It can help them discover their roles in the world, something they'd normally explore in school.

Focus on the Present

A powerful strategy to deal with stress is to focus on what they can control now. Crutcher describes his work as a therapist, “If a person walked away feeling like they had a little more influence over what happens next to them, that was a good session. Living too far out is more guessing, even if it’s a pretty good guess. But if I look at the next hour, I'm not guessing. I'm making it happen for the rest of this day.” That helps ease uncertainty and anxiety.

This seems like a good strategy for all of us as we deal with social media and the hyped messages that bombard us constantly. It can be overwhelming even without COVID. While I encourage my kids to meditate and think positively, this idea is also an important, practical way to keep moving forward despite the chaos around us.

Encourage Their Interests

Crutcher recommends using their interests as a way to express themselves and keep their minds active and hearts fulfilled. It can be sports, music, writing or poetry, art, or anything where they can express and be themselves. It also gives them an opportunity to find, remember, or develop who they are. One of my kids created an eSports club to connect with his friends, and the other two made working out their focus. It can be whatever brings them joy and releases anxiety.

Assure Them Despite Your Own Uncertainty

One of my questions was how to assure them that everything will be OK when I've had a hard time processing what’s gone on myself? Crutcher suggests you start by being transparent and admitting this is new for you too, but you can still assure them: “I’m sure as hell going to find a way to get us through this.”

That resonated with me and will for most parents. When you’re in protect mode, it’s no holds barred against the person, place, or thing threatening your kid. I sent that message to them early on, but as other obstacles built up for me, I may have fallen short. I needed to remind them and myself about my ability to go next level to protect them.

Make Therapy Available

It’s never a bad idea to make therapy available. Even if your child just seems out of sorts from their usual behavior, you can let them know there are others who can help too. “Explain to them that it doesn't mean you're crazy,” Crutcher adds. “Therapy is a place where you can air it out, and airing it out can help you decide what to do next.” In therapy, he told kids, “This room is like the inside of your brain and you can say anything you want. We can have a conversation that gets you where you feel like you have a handle on whatever is going on.” If you’re concerned about the risk of suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 to get help immediately or learn more at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

The Future and Going Back to School

Heading back to school offers some opportunities for teens to process what they’ve been through. Crutcher says like the kids at Stoneman Douglas, students will likely want to reach out to each other in ways they wouldn't have before. Everyone shared this experience, which might help them speak freely and find support in each other.

“While it may start out awkward for some kids, that should go away quickly. Everybody's in the same boat,” Crutcher adds. Teachers who provide opportunities for kids to talk about their experiences will be a tremendous help.

As a parent, I realize I need to stay close to them on this journey to offer reassurance and coping strategies even when things are “normal” again. While I can’t completely control how it changes them, I can increase the odds of the change being positive in the long run. COVID taught all of us that the unimaginable can happen, and our ability to thrive despite it relies heavily on our support system and strategies to cope. If we’re to find positive growth from this challenging experience, our best hope is to find it together.