Dear Teenagers – thinking of you during this COVID-19 pandemic
As we find ourselves in the middle of this pandemic — a new and disorienting experience for all of us — you, whose developmental stage it is to venture out into the world with curiosity and growing confidence, have been on my mind. Surely also because I have a teenage daughter whose daily life is suddenly stopped short. Staying home is not what you are cut out to do, even the introverts among you love to visit with a friend and stay busy with your various activities, from what I can tell.
But now you are being told (another thing that doesn’t sit so well with your natural and healthy state of wanting to figure things out for yourselves, make up your own mind and become more independent, not less!) that you must stay home. Just you and your family. Your family that you love or may have a challenging time with, or quite likely you both love and are challenged by, and a whole bunch more feelings in between.
Now you have had more cancellations happen in the past few weeks than in a usual year or decade even… swim meets, dance practice, outdoor program adventures, long-anticipated trips, soccer matches, performances and exams and graduations you have worked so hard for, parties, hangouts with friends, your first job…
I know this feels overwhelming. Unfair. And hard. Likely bewildering too — what just happened?! You didn’t see this coming even as your future has already long been shadowed by threats of a climate out of balance. But this? So fast and so drastic. You may be feeling disappointed, scared, angry. Your mood may be changing from one moment to the next… you may say things to your family members you afterwards regret, but you just feel so out of sorts. You may not know what to do with yourself… a lot of the usual options are gone for now. You may be worried about your schooling. You may just want to ignore the whole thing and pretend it’s all fine. But your go-to people when things feel hard at home — your friends — are also holed away, and as used to virtual connections as you are, it’s not the same as hanging out in the park, skateboarding together, giggling and snacking together, or chatting for hours.
On top of all that is the big unknown. While unknowns were likely already a huge part of your life (what will I do after I graduate? What do my peers think of me? Does s/he like me? How will I ever study for this exam with all the extra-curricular stuff going on? etc.) this is a whole other order of unknowns. On top of that the adults around you seem to be as bewildered as you are. Perhaps quicker to snap too, worried and stressed.
So what now?
Truly, I don’t really know. I so wish things were different. As my daughter sat with her first wave of big disappointment, I sat there with her and wished I could change the situation (believe me, your parents would love for this to go away and your life to get back to usual!). She was sad. She was angry. And stressed.
And all I could do was sit there with her and feel it alongside her. Feel my heart breaking as I felt hers crumble in dismay.
All I could say was: “I know. I’m so sorry. It’s hard. It really sucks.” And then just silence, I didn’t have more words for a while and neither did she. But then, they came: “We’ll get through this. Remember, we can do hard things. One step at a time. Let’s try not to think too far ahead, there is so much we don’t know right now. Let’s just take it one moment or day or week at a time, whatever chunk of time works best for you”.
So, as you can see I don’t know much. I just know that being there with her matters. And, even in the middle of all the unknowns, here are a few more things I do know:
1) You teenagers deserve the truth. So when parents and adults and politicians and decision makers don’t know the answer to something, they should just say so. And when you have heard enough news, just say so. If it makes you too anxious, then tell them to give you only what you need to know, no more. You can also ask your parents to not talk about the virus all the time, it will be good for them too, to take a break. We, for example, have decided that meal times will be “virus-free” conversation.
2) You also deserve comforting. Even as you are older, and possibly taller than your parents, doesn’t mean you don’t need comforting. Don’t be shy to ask. Parents of teens sometimes get unsure if their comforting is still welcome. If it is, just let them know and also how they might best express that… it might be a hug, or them giving you some space or being extra patient, or making some yummy food, watching a funny movie together…
3) Your feelings matter and make sense. You are allowed to feel whatever you feel. I hope you have a safe place to let those feelings roll through you and not get clogged up. Just remember that feelings and behaviours are different: allow all the feelings to tumble through, but don’t harm yourself or others as you express them.
4) Coming to terms with this kind of “new normal” takes time. Don’t worry if for days you feel frozen, and can’t get the energy up to do much. It’s a lot to take in and adjust to. Take your time. Do nothing for a while — most of the time you teenagers are way too busy anyways. Your energy will come back sooner if you let yourself chill for a while.
5) You are one of the most creative segments of the whole human population. The way your brains are growing during these years, the way you question things (and us adults!) and have your own ideas, the unique way you look at reality and feel intensely: all that makes you creative. I trust your creativity. I trust that you will come up with some awesomely cool ways to deal with this sh*t show.
6) In the middle of lots of Unknown, having some kind of a beat to your days, a rhythm of sorts really helps. Just a general outline (or if you’re like my daughter, a very specific list) of things that help you roll through a day and feel good about it afterwards… some creative time, some exercise, some helping out on the home front, some screen time but not all day long (on that note: monitoring how much news you listen to can really help — too much is too much. You’ll know when you feel deflated or anxious afterwards), and some time outside even if just on your porch or your yard or sticking your face out the window. Take deep breaths.
7) On that note, sometimes it helps to do things even if you don’t feel like it. Like getting up in the morning. Or playing with your younger sibling. Or reading that book you were in the middle of when school suddenly stopped. Or baking something yummy. Or apologizing when you blew up at your family. Or doing that one thing you never had time for but wanted to do more of… like writing a song. Choreographing a dance. Organizing your photos. Writing a real letter to your grandparents.
And as much as I encourage you to show up for yourself and then for your family (which includes being gentle and nice to yourself when you don’t manage!), now is also a great and important time to show up for the big wide world. Remember all those heroes and heroines in stories you read or watched as a kid? This is your time to be one of those. To do the hard thing with as much patience, courage and stamina as you can, which right now is: to stay home. Not to fly off on all kinds of adventures. Just to stay put. And to do this on behalf of the Whole, of the most vulnerable, those who could get really sick with this new virus making its rounds. It is a time to truly remember that we all belong to each other. That our actions affect others. So please, stay home — as much as that goes against your innate natural next step to seek out and find your own footing in the larger world, to move into intimate spaces with others, to explore and adventure out into your future.
If there are ways we can help you have more fun and make it more manageable staying home, let us know. If you have ideas on how we can support you in spreading your wings, even as you are asked to stay put, tell us.
As said, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let yourself crumble, be mad and sad, moody, unsure… whatever you might be feeling. Let that be too. It will pass if it doesn’t get stuffed down. But be both: the you with all that you may be feeling in any given moment, and also the you who can stretch and surprise yourself with showing up and making a difference in small and big ways. You matter. As does everyone else.
And again… I’m so sorry. It’s hard. But we can do hard things. And I can’t wait to see you get back to your dance & theatre performances, baseball games, fun times with friends, schedules you might complain about but also rely on, grad parties, travels, and feeling like the future is a friendly place. Until then, may we adults learn from you how we can best support you.