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5 ways to help teens feel seen and heard in an uncertain time

UPDATED: Mon., July 27, 2020

A demonstrator shouts slogans using a bullhorn next to a group of military veterans during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on Sunday in Portland, Oregon. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
A demonstrator shouts slogans using a bullhorn next to a group of military veterans during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on Sunday in Portland, Oregon. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
By Ana Homayoun For the Washington Post

Recent incidents of police violence and protests highlighting systemic racism, social inequality and police brutality have caused many teens – and adults – already overwhelmed by the continuing pandemic to feel increasingly anxious and concerned. The past few months have been exhausting for so many of us. It can be easy for young people navigating so many layers of uncertainty to feel beleaguered with pain and sadness.

Parents might wonder how to advise children facing an unprecedented moment with no blueprint or guidebook. How can we help teens find their voice and feel heard and allow them to process emotions and experiences in such chaotic and uncertain times?

Here are five ways adults can address teens’ disappointment, loss and rage:

Define, acknowledge and validate the losses and disappointments (big and small). In many ways, we haven’t been good at this. In the first weeks of panicked pivoting to remote learning and working from home, we saw getting through the day, hour and minute as success. As the situation continues, and as it continues to change, it’s time to dive deeper to reflect on how we can cope and live in our new reality.

Jeanmarie Cahill, a psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, said many parents are struggling with how to support their children through loss and disappointment, feelings that are compounded by uncertainty about the future. Parents “don’t know what’s normal teenage behavior, or what has to do with (the coronavirus) or what has to do with seeing a photo on Instagram of their friends not social distancing and they weren’t invited,” Cahill said.

Allow kids the time and space to acknowledge their experiences and feelings. Letting them define the loss gives them a sense of ownership and validates their concerns. It’s especially important because the depth of the crisis highlighted in news stories and images can make their worries seem small by comparison.

Feelings might be amplified for Black children and teens processing multiple layers of grief and/or trauma in the wake of George Floyd’s death. In the recent CNN/”Sesame Street” town hall on racism, Atlanta Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shared her approach for speaking and listening to her children. “Sometimes I just simply need to listen and let them feel and let them express their emotions,” she said. “Because I don’t have all of the answers. And I am searching for the answers in the same way they are.”

Help kids identify choices, routines and rituals. I’ve been working with students for nearly two decades on executive functioning skills, which include organizing, planning, prioritizing, focusing and completing tasks. Over the past few months, the loss of simple routines and rituals – saying hello to classmates in the hallway, talking to a teacher after class, the daily commute to and from school – has disrupted the sense of normalcy that reinforces safety and stability. Now more than ever, choices, rituals and routines matter, and taking the time to help kids identify ways to start and end their days and weeks, and to transition between activities, can provide a sense of structure.

Matty Pahren, 21, a junior at Duke University, says having a daily routine has been essential to her well-being. Pahren, of Richmond, and her sister, Becky, 17, go for a walk or run nearly every day, even though “before this, I hated running, and I would have to drag myself to the gym at school.” When she doesn’t have a set schedule, she has found a rhythm by taking time for herself, doing something productive, resting and then working out. Pahren also finds activities that “make Friday and Saturday feel a little bit different,” such as game and trivia nights with family; she plays online games, such as those on Jackbox or games such as Codenames and Skribbl.io, with friends.

Encourage teens to develop a sense of competence. This new normal is an opportunity for kids to practice executive functioning skills, creative problem-solving and critical thinking to increase confidence.

Mimi Zoila, 19, and Tiana Day, 17, met through Instagram less than two days before they organized a peaceful protest over the Golden Gate Bridge in June. Zoila, a student at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, and a resident of Marin County in Northern California, had obtained a permit for 50 to 300 people to walk across the bridge, and she was looking for someone to help organize and spread the word.

Day, who just graduated from high school in San Ramon, California, had led a protest in her hometown and offered to help. A friend created a flier, and Day and Zoila both shared it on social media. Day said her parents provided critical support, and her mom drove into San Francisco with her the day before the event to identify parking and other logistical issues.

There has always been power in taking action in a moment that might otherwise leave you feeling powerless. Right now, this ability to experience a sense of autonomy and competence is all the more important, whether it relates to school or urgent social issues. Acting as background singers to your children’s lead vocals can help them solidify skills and gain a sense of competence that builds confidence.

Students don’t need to organize large protests to feel competent. Helping children actively engage in studying, understanding and discussing events related to racism, police brutality and structural injustice can be important starting points.

Promote an exploratory mind-set. It’s vital to encourage teenagers to think creatively and come up with alternative solutions when initial plans dissolve.

Oliver Gower, 18, a recent high school graduate from Newton, Massachusetts, has been looking online for jobs he could do while stuck at home. His mom, who works in marketing, helped him line up a job doing voice-overs, and he has now found somewhat consistent work – doing something he had never imagined.

For parents and caregivers, it might be as simple as asking open-ended questions without judgment: What are five skills you’d like to learn over the summer? What are three ways you can be of service to your family and community? What are some daily habits that promote your social and emotional wellness?

One of my students decided to check in on all of her elderly neighbors (from a safe distance) about helping with errands. In this moment, it can be easy to get stuck on what can’t be done. Creative thinking can open up new avenues.

Encourage them to establish connections. When schools closed and students started doing everything online, old rules about social media and technology use went out the window. With so many ways of interacting off-limits because of social distancing, young people can benefit from parents encouraging positive ways to stay connected, to help teens cope with stress and reflect on social change.

Tiana Ford, 19, was in her first year of an accelerated six-year medical program at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Ford continued her rigorous coursework online after coming home to St. Louis, but she had to juggle that with helping her siblings, ages 13 and 7, with remote learning because her mother and stepfather are both doctors. It was overwhelming at times. Now that her siblings are out of school, it is somewhat easier, though Ford misses seeing friends and classmates every day.

She is using FaceTime and other social media apps to stay calm and keep in touch with school friends. “I’ve just been relaxing, taking time [for] myself before I have to get back into study mode.”

Allowing teens space to connect with friends also creates opportunities for more meaningful connections with the adults in their lives, and it can lessen conflict and allow for mutual respect at home, providing relief from the trap of nonstop parent/child expectations.

And that, of course, is good for everyone.

Homayoun is an author of three books, including “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.”

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