Plus, they can’t even drink.
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I spoke to nearly a dozen high school students from all over the country and they overwhelmingly echoed the above sentiments. They were taking it in stride to varying degrees, but many were fatalistic about the future. They mourn the losses of (in order of increasing importance) prom, school groups, sports, and graduation. They hang out on video apps and social media with their friends, but they miss seeing them in person. And they miss the ritual of going to class and hanging out with people they’ve known for years, even if they’ve never been close friends.
Here’s some select commentary.
“When you’re in school you only think about going home,” says Emma (17, Novato, California, a classmate of Zoe’s), “and now that you’re home, going to school is all you want to do.”
Jackson (16, Greenville, South Carolina) misses other rituals. “I miss sitting down in a restaurant with my family, which we used to do every Friday night,” he says. “I just didn’t realize how much I’d miss ‘normal life.’”
Zia (16, Denver), a junior who has yet to take any of her college entrance exams, characterizes her mental condition as “stressed” and “getting worse every day” as the crisis shows no signs of abatement.
Kam (17, New York) says he’s keeping busy at home but, as a graduating senior, is “kind of freaked out about going to college after this. I’m an only child going from living with no one to living in a dorm.”
These are all common sentiments. A new study polled students aged 13 to 25 about their current mood, and the top three results were “frustrated” (54 percent), “nervous” (49 percent), and “disconnected” (40 percent). Teens are anxious, they are upset, and they are nostalgic … for February 2020.
But most of all, they are bored. God, how teens are bored. Many schools have hastily implemented online learning, but teens widely dismiss it as ineffective, at least for now. “Online schooling is mostly a joke,” Zoe says, “just to say that we ‘did school.’ I do maybe 30 minutes of work a day now. The Zoom chats are super unproductive, just a waste of time.”
Without hours and hours of daily structure, teens are left to fill virtually the entire day alone, and technology is not providing the answer. Netflix and Xbox can only get you so far.
Every teen I spoke to cited how crushingly bored they had become in just a few days. Aiden (16, Alamo, California) says the boredom is causing him to “go crazy.” Jackson in South Carolina says: “It’s so bad it can disrupt my sleeping. If this lasts a lot longer, everyone will be so bored. We’re going to have to come up with a new way to do things.”
There’s a lot of denial in the mix as well, though that is probably not unique to teens. The “taking it one day at a time” metaphor was also well-cited in my conversations.
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So how do you help a teen cope? My personal experience would suggest you can’t, that you are best off staying out of a teen’s way, but Ryan Fedoroff, National Director of Education at Newport Academy, a mental health treatment center for teens and young adults, offers some tips. She says, “Be compassionate and truly listen to your child when they speak about their worries and the fact that they are upset with activities being canceled. It’s important to validate their feelings during this time, even if they are disappointed and sad. Ask your child how you can support them through this time. It is important to not try and solve their problems when they are upset. Just show compassion, validate, and be present.”
She also notes, and this is important, that kids watch adults for psychological cues. “If you are obsessively and overtly worried about coronavirus, or continuously mentioning how upset you are that their activities are canceled, your kids will likely have anxiety about it too. We all need to vent, but try to do it in a private place where your children can’t hear you.”
Fedoroff also suggests trying to create as much structure as possible in a teen’s life: family meals, workouts, and reasonable “virtual learning time.” (Khan Academy is still an awesome online tool.) If graduation is canceled, you can have one at home on Zoom. Good news: Your kid is the valedictorian and gets to make a speech! Remember, this is an event that will define a teen’s outlook for the rest of their life, a virtual 9/11 for Gen-Z. Positivity is unilaterally a good thing wherever you can find it.
Zoe does have a glimmer of optimism and hope underneath it all, as most teens do, as we all do. “I’m still hopeful that this is temporary,” she says. “I’m not ready to give up the last three months of school, the last three months of being a kid. I want to prepare for the worst, but that’s not me. If I think that way, I’ll fall apart.”
Really, she just wants a little more time, a few weeks to finish her high school career strong and officially close the book on her adolescence. More than prom, more than graduation, more than a medal in track, it’s clear there’s one thing she wants more than anything: the chance to say goodbye.
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- Read all of our coronavirus coverage here