As we make progress moving forward during what has been an unprecedented year, we continue to see students struggle with so many facets of mental health and stress management. These concerns pre-existed the pandemic on many levels. However, as parents and educators, we are grappling with the multi-faceted impact of COVID-19 on various aspects of adolescent development and functioning – and as such – continue the need to see our students and their struggles through this complex lens.
So, how do we help our students prioritize their mental health through this experience that is unique and eludes our understanding? While it is useful to engage in conversation that helps our teens understand the deleterious ways COVID-19 has exacerbated what was already a delicate balance of academic, social, and extracurricular pursuits, we are trying to move on from this discourse into a more future-oriented, affirming place.
Like many adults, adolescents are growing tired of the constant dialogue surrounding COVID-19 and dwelling on the experiences that should have been “normal” and just do not feel that way.
It is important to identify this issue for what it is and validate their experience, but the next level of this type of conversation is to ask them what has improved throughout the past year.
Parents may want to ask their teens some of the following questions: “What feels more normal about their lives now as opposed to this time last year? Specifically, have they returned to a normal schedule at school, athletics, or the performing arts? Do they have more time with friends and a greater variety in social functions? Is vacation or seeing extended family now a possibility when it would not have been in the very recent past?”
These are more affirmative questions that adults (parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, etc.) can focus on when talking with their adolescents. Anxiety gains strength and momentum when we focus on negative and uncontrollable circumstances. While there is an abundance of both in any conversation pertaining to COVID-19 and what we all continue to have to contend with, we are in a different place than we were a year ago about many aspects of human functioning. We can celebrate that no matter how uncertain things may be in some ways and set this tone for a teen who may need that psychological guidance and change in perspective.
While COVID-19 has brought about loss on so many levels from the tangible loss of life to the more abstract definition of that word, it has also been a force of information and growth that we never necessarily wanted or could have anticipated.
Ask your teens to not only think about what has improved over the last year but ask them to reflect on something that they may have learned because of going through an experience like this.
Some of the questions to ask your teens might include, “Do you feel that something has changed or evolved within, such as an increased empathy for others or an appreciation of how things we used to complain about now seem like things we should covet and celebrate?”
Again, this type of dialogue calls for introspection and self-awareness from the adolescent and is much more adaptive to one’s mental health than the ostensible venting and lamenting that has grown tiresome and unproductive.
One of the most challenging dynamics, and there are many, that our experience with COVID-19 has brought about is this issue of a conflation of boundaries.
There have been many reports from adults and teens alike that the day does not have the same structure or compartments that it once did. For teens that are virtually taught, each day, each class, may feel the same in length, tone, and atmosphere, as opposed to the wonderful difference that can be felt on a Friday as compared to a Monday or looking forward to a break in their day that feels more social and less academic.
Encourage teens to recognize the boundaries that should be in place for adequate and consistent self-care. Even in a predominately virtual environment, you can schedule a break, a walk outside, a workout, playing with pets, socializing, etc. A Monday should always feel different than a Friday in terms of a focus on task completion so engage in discussion of how and where they are setting appropriate boundaries for themselves and assigning a time and a place to every purpose, notably downtime, and relaxation.
As the end of the school year approaches, most students are focusing on wrapping up their classes, final assessments, and/or final exams. The intensity of this focus perhaps varies depending upon age and where the student is in terms of the college process. What does not vary is that an assessment given at any time of the year has certain characteristics that a student can control and others that they cannot.
Control inventories are an essential component of any school of cognitive-behavioral thought and or therapy and it is effective in its simplicity. Students can learn to take a control inventory almost automatically. Doing well on an assessment is in part related to a student controlling their effort, attitude, and level of preparation. Those are the tenets to emphasize, not what grade they will ultimately get and or its impact on their GPA and by extension, college prospects.
This will lead to an anxiety-filled and unproductive thought process, as opposed to a place where they maintain and enjoy an in-control and focused mindset.
In closing, let’s congratulate ourselves and our adolescents on the fact that a well-deserved summer break is quickly approaching.
I know for many of our students, their summers are as busy and productive as the school year but there is still a reprieve from the constancy of the academic and cerebral grind that is the school year. We have learned so much and gotten through this difficult year together. These students remained focused and steadfast in every pursuit, it’s time for that ceremonious if not literal pat on the back. Enjoy your summer and always prioritize your self-care and mental health and that of those around you!!
Jennifer Butler-Sweeney is Oak Knoll's Upper School Consulting Psychologist.