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The Kids May Not Be All Right. And That's OK

(Rene Böhmer/Unsplash)
(Rene Böhmer/Unsplash)

Recently, I was on a virtual therapy visit with a patient who is a senior in high school. We were meeting via video because her appointment with me was not considered critical enough for either of us to be at the hospital.

She shared a meme her mom had sent to her:

“Dear Class of 2020, You entered the world during 9/11. You graduate during a pandemic. No doubt these events will shape you. You see beyond borders and political parties. You savor the good. The celebrations may need to wait, and you are OK with that. We are proud of you!”

My patient took comfort in this message as an endorsement of her generation’s open-mindedness, political activism and resilience. And yet. There was a line that bugged me that I couldn’t help pointing out: "And you are OK with that."

“Are you OK with that?" I asked. "With not getting to experience your final semester of high school, walk at graduation, celebrate now? Because it’s OK if you’re not. ‘We’ will be proud of you even if you are sad and angry.”

She was grateful for the permission to be honest. She admitted she was frustrated, after an especially challenging couple of years, that she wouldn't get to savor these last months.

The parent of another patient told me this week that her son wasn't “his normal self.”

My response: “Good. Nothing is normal right now. Why should he be normal? Why should any of us?”

[T]his is about grieving the loss of a lot more than photo-ops and parties with friends.

These are not normal times. Life has been upended for most of us. For teens and young adults on the cusp of graduation, it means (at best) the delay of major developmental milestones. There may be no prom, no chance to walk across a stage and shake a dean’s hand (or even bump an elbow), no standing in a crowd of matching gowns and tossing caps into the air.

There’s a concept in psychology known as complicated grief. One could argue that all grief is complicated, but complicated grief refers specifically to debilitating feelings of loss that don’t lessen even over a very long time. Anyone who has suffered a loss knows that grief never goes away. Complicated grief is more persistent. It interferes with a person’s ability to resume his or her life after a loss.

To cope well with grief, a person needs to be allowed to feel the pain of their loss. Graduations are a mourning as well as a celebration. I worry that if we expect teens and young adults to gracefully accept very different rituals and transitions we risk making them less resilient. We could be setting them up for complicated grieving if we don’t give them permission, even encourage them, to be less than OK.

For them, this is about grieving the loss of a lot more than photo-ops and parties with friends. According to developmental psychology, they are in the stage of “identity versus role confusion” — actively exploring their independent relationships, interests and goals. They are developing a wider lens, a third-person perspective of themselves and their responsibilities to others, their values, their place in society both separate from and related to their parents.

Telling teens and young adults to pack up their lockers and dorm rooms and finish the year at home is like telling them to stop in the middle of a four-way intersection with no directional signs. They have to pause and consider the road they were on. Some of them are unexpectedly evaluating if they want to continue in the direction they were headed once the road is opened again.

Even before COVID and the threat of a financial recession set to hit as many of them enter the job market, this was the first generation predicted to do less well in terms of financial and job security and mobility than their parents. This halt in their development, in all of society, only adds to their uncertainty. Young adults with no place to go or the risks faced by those forced to isolate in unsafe or unhealthy homes are in an especially precarious predicament.

First and middle and last, let them grieve.

Psychologists are only beginning to understand the impact that growing up in the wake of 9/11 had on this generation’s development. We won’t know the full impact of the current global pandemic for a long time. In the meantime, there are things we can do to help this generation keep moving forward even though the road may look different than any of us expected.

First and middle and last, let them grieve. Resist the urge to minimize or dismiss their worry, anger and sadness. They have every right to feelings of isolation and having to regress to their childhood bedrooms and routines. Separate your feelings from theirs. You may have to grieve your own disappointment at not seeing them accept their diploma and manage your anxiety about seeing them struggle under this stress.

Resist the parental urge to fix things. You can’t fix this. When they’re ready, you can offer alternatives (virtual prom!) but not until, and unless, they’re ready.

Leave room for confusion and uncertainty. Be ready to help with existential worries. If your high school senior begins to wonder if they were really ready to go to college, it may be that this chance to pause and reflect that’s been forced on them is tuning them into something important. Give them room to think and talk about the possibility of taking a different road.

The reality may be that some of our teens and young adults are not ready to grieve yet. They are taking this one week, or day, at a time. They’re not ready to acknowledge that they may not go back to school next month, if at all. This is OK. This is healthy coping. This is resilience. They’ll grieve when they’re ready. There is no roadmap right now. We’re in new territory. Things are not normal. We don’t have to be, either.

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Ellen H. O'Donnell Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Ellen H. O’Donnell, Ph.D., is a pediatric psychologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

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