We don’t know how long this will last and we don’t yet know what the impact will be on each of us short and long term. We certainly don’t know what the impact will be on our teens.
We do know that they will possibly finally get the sleep they crave and need. We do know they will spend more time at home with their families. We don’t know if that time will be positive or negative. We don’t know what the implications are for being physically distant from their friends and peers and physically close to their parents and siblings.
There is so much we don’t know and want to know. Our natural inclinations are to want answers, and to want them quickly. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that we will not have answers quickly. The world is large, and the impact of this virus will be felt differently in different areas of the country and world, and for differing amounts of time.
I have spent many years thinking about the mental health needs in our communities and how adults can best help young people thrive and develop, and one critical component has emerged over and over again: caring adults are a key protective factor for teens.
What that means is that having caring adults around can help mitigate some of the challenges and stresses of adolescence. In the work I have done recently teaching “Youth Mental Health First Aid,” I have learned, over and over, that many people in our communities have a unique ability to be those “caring adults.”
Although we don’t yet know the impact of these strange and scary times on ourselves or on our teens, being physically apart does not need to mean that we cannot be that caring adult. In some ways, we may even have more time and space to do that now.
A few thoughts about how to be a caring adult at a time like this:
- Remember that there are so many ways to communicate. There is no right or wrong way. It is impossible to list all of them, and in full disclosure, I don’t know all of them! There is phone, texting, chats, email, a variety of social media platforms and more. It’s helpful to use a “tool” (remember that the goal is communication and the method is the tool) that you and your teen are both comfortable with. It’s possible that it might be a little out of your comfort zone, but right now isn’t a bad time to stretch toward your teen and be a little (not a lot) out of your comfort zone.
- Whatever your role and relationship is with a teen in your life, this is the perfect time to check in. Fortunately, teens are often surrounded (even if not physically) by many adults, including parents, parents’ friends, teen professionals, grandparents, neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, clergy and more. If you are in a relationship in any way with a teen, this is the perfect time to check in.
- A check-in can be as superficial or as deep as you wish. It can be a simple generic text saying, “I am thinking about you today. How are you?” or it can be more tailored and personalized: “What’s it like not playing basketball right now?” or “I can imagine it’s so frustrating that the spring play isn’t happening.” There are so many examples. Our teens’ lives have been turned topsy-turvy. They may or may not choose to respond, but they will have “felt” your caring.
- Now is a good time to share thoughts about TV shows, movies and books. Using movies, TV shows and books is often a great way to get people to share their thoughts and feelings without it feeling too threatening.
- Sports can be a great connector. This is a perfect time to catch up on ESPN classics, share your thoughts with your baseball-, basketball-, soccer- or gymnastics-loving teen friend and talk about them, either by FaceTime or by phone, text or email.
- Now is the time to be your authentic self, without overwhelming teens. Help them learn how you are processing things and what you are doing to express both your positive and negative feelings. Possibly not all your deepest, darkest thoughts, but modeling for them how you are taking care of yourself without putting the pressure on them that parents and others may be putting can be very helpful.
The important thing is that you are connecting and caring. There are so many more ways to connect. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t try just once. This truly is a marathon, not a sprint. If you don’t get a response, try again. Different people are processing this experience differently and at different speeds. Being a caring adult means being there now, and it means checking in again in a week or two, and again after that.
Ideally, the checking in isn’t onerous and will provide an opportunity so that when and if the teen is ready to share thoughts and feelings, there will be someone to “hold” those feelings. All of us, in our own ways, are overwhelmed, but teens are at a particularly critical period of development and a caring adult can be an important part of becoming resilient.
In the optimistic words of Anne Frank while living in isolation, “How wonderful it is that no one needs to wait a single moment before beginning to improve the world.”
Being a caring adult who reaches out to a teen is a simple way to help the teen, their parents and families and all of our communities thrive during this very difficult time.
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