For many young people, sheltering at home means missing milestones and public recognition of their achievements. This is especially true for seniors graduating from high school and college, and many are feeling lost.
Kendall Smith, a high school senior who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, says her school has many traditions leading up to graduation. One of the most eagerly anticipated events is “Grad Bash,” a rite of passage when all graduating seniors head off to Disney World. “It’s something we’ve looked forward to since we were freshmen,” says Smith. “And I remember hearing about all the memories, and being so excited about going with my friends.”
It was understandably disappointing when this highly anticipated event was cancelled. Smith, who plays flag football, says she was feeling lost amid a big celebration for senior athletes being canceled. “It’s this huge event where people walk through the middle of the field with their parents and their family and they have flowers and you just really feel special that night,” she says.
Teens are suffering from missing out on these experiences and the opportunity for connecting with their peers at critical transitions into adulthood, says Dr. Ludmila De Faria, a psychiatrist with Florida State University. She says they’re mourning the loss of important developmental milestones they were supposed to be doing at this time in their lives, and experts advise parents to take these issues seriously and try to help kids process them.
These losses are also experienced by college students. Waverly Hart is 21 and a senior at the College of Wooster in Ohio. One of the most memorable graduation events is “I.S. Monday,” short for Independent Study Monday, when seniors celebrate finishing their theses. Hart says it typically occurs on the first Monday after spring break.
“All the seniors skip classes, and there’s a huge parade. And everybody on campus cheers us on and that’s something that we’ve been looking forward to since we were admitted to Wooster. And now we won’t get to experience that … ever,” says Hart. As a competitive cross-country runner, Hart was looking forward to taking part in the last season of her high school career, but that was canceled as well. “And it’s really heartbreaking to know that the last race I competed in was indeed my last race ever. And I won’t get another chance to compete in the black and gold Wooster uniform.”
Dr. De Faria, who works with student mental health, says when young people are feeling lost over missing these kinds of momentous events, “it’s almost like they are forced to regress a little bit or at least not progress as expected on their developmental milestone.” College students in particular are losing their support group during an important developmental phase. They had moved away from their families of origin, which is part of a process called individuating. They’re finding their people, their identities and developing their ability to take care of themselves. This can be traumatic for a generation that “already suffers high levels of anxiety,” she says. It puts them at greater risk of developing clinical anxiety and depression.
Many parents may be feeling lost themselves at how to reassure their children during a time of such great uncertainty, which could make things even harder on teens and young adults. But there are ways to help them cope. Here are a few things parents can try.
1. Acknowledge their feelings. An important way for parents to help high school and college students is by simply acknowledging their feelings — the sadness and disappointment they feel about the loss of prom, celebrations, and graduation. Parents should recognize that for many young people, this is the biggest thing they’ve experienced in their lives. When you’re young, understanding that life is not as predictable as they might have thought can be scary. Parents can help by letting them talk about it.
2. Encourage them to stay connected. Young people need to establish a cushion of social connection they can lean on through these times. Staying socially connected, even virtually, can be helpful. It’s important to maintain social connection and intimacy even if this is not in person. We can take advantage of the many ways to socially connect, with all kinds of shared online activities, including group chats, dinners, TV, and even movie watching.
3. Shift focus to what they can control. Talk to your teen or college-aged child about the things they do have some control over. Graduation may be postponed or cancelled, but young people can plan special events for after the pandemic has ended. Perhaps a trip with best friends or a post graduation party could be something to look forward to. Focus on the positive events that can occur at the end of this crisis. Envision how you can celebrate and maybe even start making plans now.
4. Emphasize the greater good. It can help to point out to young people that they are making sacrifices right now not just for their own health and safety, but for the greater good. Think about the altruistic reason we are doing this. Changes in everyday life to limit the spread of disease may be hard, but we’re in it together, and we’re in it to benefit the larger community and to have a good impact on overall health and well-being.
Florida high schooler Smith says she and her peers understand this well. She says, “As disappointed as we all are that we’re missing out on these important milestones in our life, we do understand that this virus is killing people, and that if we don’t sacrifice these things that we might contribute to the problem. We understand these sacrifices need to be made and we know that we are doing our part in this, doing what we can for society,” she says.
Once young people get through this crisis, they will realize they can handle tough situations and get to the other side. It will make us stronger — sometimes we surprise ourselves.
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