The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every aspect of life as we know it: healthcare, economy, travel, politics, communal life, education, and more. Local governments have shut down schools, most likely for the rest of the school year. This means high school teens will probably miss important milestones like prom and graduation. Sophomores may not receive their drivers’ licenses – one of the most exciting perks of adolescence – for quite a while.
With so many facets of their lives turned upside down, how do we – as the adults in their lives – manage the disappointments that inevitably arise?
Validate Their Feelings
Lisa Faguet, LCSW, Clinical Program Director of Evolve Residential Treatment Center in Agoura Hills, says validation is very important during this uncertain time.
“Sometimes parents can be unintentionally invalidating by minimizing or downplaying their teens’ losses,” she says. For example, a mother might think she’s making the situation better by saying “Well, everyone is missing prom, it’s not just you,” or “All your friends are staying home so you’re not missing out on anything.” Or a father, not understanding why his teen is so upset that the DMV is closed, might mutter, “You have the rest of your life to drive. Why are you so eager to get your license?”
This kind of dismissive attitude can hurt a child.
“In reality, parents think these statements could help their teens get over the situation, but it actually does the opposite,” Faguet emphasizes. “Being dismissive can make a teen feel really unheard.”
She suggests parents put themselves in their teenager’s shoes to try to feel empathy for what they’re experiencing. She suggests using these phrases when talking to a teen about their disappointments:
“I hear you. I know this is really disappointing. You were really looking forward to this, and now it’s not happening.”
They don’t need to hear much more than that. At first, your teen simply needs you to recognize how they feel, and acknowledge the feelings are real.
Additionally, when it comes to big milestones teens may have been looking forward to for years, parents should try their best to figure out alternative ways to celebrate them. Yes, their huge Sweet Sixteen, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, or Quinceañera probably won’t happen as planned. But you can do something to commemorate the day on your own. Teens anticipating such monumental celebrations might be heartbroken when they’re postponed or canceled. It may be worse, however, if the day goes by unnoticed. Baking a cake, blowing balloons, and taking pictures could comfort for a teen who’s been looking forward to this rite-of-passage celebration.
Many adolescents are also looking for alternative ways to celebrate milestones with friends. For example, one teen in Danville, CA, disappointed that her high school prom was canceled, organized an international digital prom on Tik Tok. With her urging, thousands of high school students glammed up on March 28, danced with their family members, and posted videos of themselves on social media.
Zoom is also gaining widespread attention in the media as the go-to app for teen hangouts. Since many middle and high schools have shifted to Zoom, the platform is quickly becoming familiar to Generation Z. Teens are now taking advantage of their time on Zoom to not only listen to lectures, but also organize birthday parties, class reunions, and regular get-togethers with friends.
Raising Resilient Teens
Faguet admits that parents have to realize that some problems can never be solved or fixed as neatly as they or their adolescents would like. Of course, a virtual celebration is never the same as an actual, live party. Some parents who might be struggling financially might not be able to postpone a milestone event if they lost their deposit. Other high schoolers won’t be able to go on their senior trip. Even if parents promise a later trip to the same place, it doesn’t change the fact their classmates won’t be there.
After validating their disappointments, parents need to allow their teens the chance to grieve.
“A lot of these situations are out of your control, and out of your children’s control,” Faguet says. “At the end of the day, a big part of raising resilient teens is teaching them to accept and weather these disappointments. A parent can’t always shield their children from difficult life experiences.”
When Distress Lasts Too Long
Of course, when your teen first hears that parties, trips, and other important events are canceled, they may likely be a bit depressed or upset. And that’s normal. It’s part of the grieving process.
But if the distress lasts longer than you think it should, seek professional help.
Elise Guthmann, LMFT, Clinical Program Director of Evolve Ojai Residential Treatment Center for Teens, says that after a period of grief, acceptance usually follows. If acceptance doesn’t come, it could be because your adolescent lacks essential coping skills to deal with stress or other disappointments.
“Many teens are in a state of debilitating pain and bitterness because they simply don’t want the current state of reality to be true,” she says. “They keep fighting reality and resisting the new normal. Such teens don’t have the distress tolerance or emotion regulation skills to learn how to accept tough situations without necessarily approving of them. There’s a difference.”
Additionally, the impact of coronavirus regulations can hit some teens harder than others – especially those who have a previous history of mental health issues. If you suspect your teen is struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse, or behavioral issues, contact a licensed and accredited mental health treatment center to arrange a clinical evaluation.
If you or a parent you know is struggling, Evolve offers free virtual support groups for parents of teens seeking practical guidance and emotional support. Choose from our parent support groups on Tuesdays at 7pm PST or Thursdays 10 am PST.