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The Biggest Heartache for Tweens and Teens Right Now & How We Can Help Lift the Mood

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Many tweens and teens are very, very sad at the moment.

School term is now finished and it’s time for them to go home indefinitely, with no clear understanding of when they will see their friends again. Most know that they will be home-schooled next term.  Others know that their parents are essential workers, and they will return to school without their friends by their side.  Either way their hearts are breaking for the life they once knew.

For centuries we have got through hard times together. We all cope better in the face of anxiety and threat when we are connected to people we love and trust.  Yet, under this unique COVID-19 threat, we are asking our tweens and teens to stay away from those they feel most connected to – their peers.  

We all acknowledge they are going to need technology more than ever. It’s the only way they can show up for each other at the moment. However, in an era where schools and professionals caution parents against too much tech time, we all have questions about the new role technology will play in their lives.

Will Online Communication Combat Loneliness?

Firstly, I think it’s important to quantify what technology can and can’t do.  It is not a “cure all”.

Research tell us that there are some significant differences between face to face communication and online communication.  Face to face communication is hands down the most effective way to convey emotions and attitudes, as two people have the opportunity to gain synchronised feedback.  Emotions and attitudes are far more difficult to read and easier to misinterpret during online interactions.

Although current research doesn’t take into consideration our ability to evolve (which humans are amazing at doing), we can assume that even video calls won’t completely dissipate loneliness.  They are likely to be void of some of their usual richness, leaving young people feeling incomplete and aware of a deficiency.  In my opinion, not even unlimited tech time will allow them to sidestep the pain of being distant.

Given this, let’s accept that there will be times that our tweens and teens will still feel a deep sense of isolation. From what parents are telling me, extraverts are already in the foetal position! During this period of adaption, no one is going to be able to respond to this void except their immediate family. Perhaps that is the most beautiful silver lining that we could ever wish for?

Here are some things that you can do to help:

  • Remind them that this is temporary.
  • Validate that this is hard, and that technology is not a “cure all”.
  • Keep gratitude in the forefront of your conversations. “I am grateful we are safe” and “I am grateful that we have each other” and “How blessed are we to have each other to hug right now?”
  • Don’t forget that safe physical touch releases oxytocin, a powerful chemical to boost mood.  Giving extra hugs, wrestling, brushing each other’s hair or sharing YouTube videos on the couch are all ways we can connect physically.
  • Conversations about the hardships of past generations can be very meaningful right now.

How Young People Can Best Show Up for Each Other Right Now? 

During times of crisis we all draw on internal and external resources to help get us through.  Part of our external resources are relationships which are already established, trusted and sure. Teachers and other caring adults like sports coaches, dance teachers, church youth pastors and youth workers that are already in young people’s lives will fall into this category.

I am very concerned for the mental health of young people who may have already felt lonely, have limited social networks, don’t have access to technology, have experienced compound stress or live unhappy homes. Young people whose parents are working in the medical sector will be carrying heightened anxiety. Extraverts, single child households and senior students also have special needs right now.

Schools are working hard at putting additional support in place. Some schools are delivering daily inspirational videos via social media. Some are offering school based “help lines” for students to call if they feel overwhelmed. Some are setting up group chats and closed discussion groups to support mental health. Please support teachers in any way you can. They are delivering far more than education at the moment – they are delivering connection.

In order for all these endeavours to be successful, we also need young people’s help. We need them to step up to the plate right now, and shine by taking initiatives to look out for each other.  They are experts at spotting distress and recognising poor mental health in each other.  At a time when adults may be distracted or absent, friends helping friends will be more important than ever.

Here are some things that they can to do look after themselves and others:

  • Look for signs of deteriorating mental health in their peers – lack of sleep, change in diet, consistent change in mood or dialogue.
  • Keep in close contact with teachers if they are worried about a peer. Encourage them to step over the confidentiality line if they have concerns.
  • Be kind to all. Text someone they wouldn’t normally.
  • Remove content from their newsfeed that isn’t positive or helpful.
  • Create a gratitude jar.
  • Keep a list of things they want to do once social isolation is over.
  • Try to keep some exercise in their daily schedule.

How Can We Show Up for Them at the Moment?

We are always cautioning tweens and teens against sharing or posting intimate information online.  We have all seen how easy it is for them to overexpose themselves during online conversations and say or do things they may later regret. Texts can be screen shot. Video calls can be recorded.  Nothing they say online can be guaranteed it will stay private. 

It’s important to note that the risks associated with the internet won’t magically go away because we are facing a health crisis. Paedophiles and pornography won’t vanish from our screens. The rejection young people feel when they are not included in a group chat, or someone gossips about them won’t be erased either. Perhaps one could argue that they are about to magnify? 

That’s where parents need to be one step ahead, which is a big ask at a time when parents are already stretched to capacity.  However, I want to assure you that it’s easier to set the pace than chase a horse that has bolted. If you have tweens you might be interested in this blog Setting Up Social Media Well.

Young people not only need each other, they need caring adults in their lives, so keep an eye out for structured, supervised online spaces for young people. Gyms, dance groups, church youth groups, life skills mentoring groups, creative drawing groups are all being offered online. Online communities are popping up everywhere.

Here are some things that you can do to help:

  • Consider the boundaries you had before this period of time, let them out a little, but not at their risk or harm. 
  • Look for structured, supervised positive online spaces for them to be a part of.
  • Use technology with them. Apps like TikTok and Marco Polo can be a whole lot of fun if everyone gets involved in using them.
  • Encourage them to stay active in their existing social communities, even if they feel uninterested.
  • Draw attention to their responsibility to care for their friends. Ask them, “How can you show up for your friends right now?”
  • Try to keep some exercise in their daily schedule.

Let’s use technology to its greatest potential during this time but let’s also acknowledge that the loss of human connection is one that we will all grieve. I am sure that young people will surface differently after this is over.  They will be wiser, more grateful, and grow in ways we could only have dreamt about. But in the meantime, they need us to hold them and teach them.  Home will be the hero.

RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Everyday Resilience: Helping Kids Handle Friendship Drama, Academic Pressure and the Self-doubt of Growing Up and “The Everyday Resilience Journal for Tweens”.

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