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

Black Lives Matter protest

GSF Alumni. Anna Homayoun, updated her Washington Post article from July 21st to be seen in The Spokesman-Review Aug. 2nd edition.

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.