High school seniors and their parents face an especially difficult reality as schools across the country are shut down in response to COVID-19.
With each passing week, the loss of highly anticipated milestones mounts. Senior trips, prom, spring sports, awards banquets and graduation ceremonies canceled or postponed and the likelihood of seeing friends on campus one last time fades as uncertainty about health and safety increases.
Here are ways parents and Class of 2020 seniors can work together to process feelings and gain fresh perspective while waiting out this quarantine:
Validate feelings. Practice compassion by listening to high school seniors and acknowledging their feelings. They may express everything from anger and frustration to relief and joy. Let them know you share their jumbled emotions about this confusing time and will help however you can.
At the same time, be sensitive about how your own feelings impact your senior. For example, you might feel extreme disappointment over a canceled event, but your senior seems unfazed. Or your student is heartbroken over a lost moment, but you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s OK to feel differently from one another in this uncharted territory. Listen with compassion without stirring up more disappointment or discounting sadness.
Expect differences in perspective. From life experience, adults know that disappointment and loss can be dealt with and overcome. While things don’t always turn out the way we hope, difficult seasons don’t ruin life. For most high school seniors, perspective hasn’t had time to grow in their 17 or 18 years. That’s what makes losing what many consider the crowning moments and rewards of the last 13 years particularly painful.
“The narrow focus of teens is absolutely normal,” says Erica Rood, founder of Inspire Balance Life Coaching for Parents, Teens, and Young Adults. “Parents can help by reminding teens there are still meaningful experiences to look forward to. Yes, this is extremely disappointing. But there are other bright lights ahead.”
Talk it out. Make every effort to communicate. Let your senior know that it’s natural for feelings to change from day to day as more information becomes available, and that talking about it helps. Stay open to difficult conversations that include a lot of “I don’t know” answers. Ask open-ended questions like, “What are you missing most?” Don’t feel like you need to have answers when none of us do. Your availability to listen is what matters right now—and it’s what your senior will remember.
If your teen is reluctant to talk to you, encourage him to express himself in other ways, such as journaling or talking to other trusted adults.
Speak to the future. If seniors must give up traditional rites of passage, honor what might feel like an abrupt entry into adulthood. Speak with respect and kindness, not only to who they are in this final semester of high school, but also to who they are becoming. Praise the ways your senior handles himself with maturity and poise and point out the courage it takes to let go and move forward. This is an opportunity to start relating to your senior as a young adult. Allow appropriate amounts of privacy and time alone and encourage your senior to stay connected to friends.
Follow your senior’s lead. When asked the best way for parents to help their seniors navigate this uncertain time, Naomi Gipson, a senior at Westview High in Rancho Peñasquitos, wisely pointed out that every student is different. “Some are really optimistic. Some are sad. Some are ready to do something about it,” Naomi says. Her friends, who stay connected via Zoom and FaceTime, talk about getting dressed up for dinner and music at someone’s house when quarantine is lifted (like a mini prom).
Parents and seniors have a unique opportunity to brainstorm alternative activities that best fit their family’s needs and feelings about this interrupted senior year. Acknowledge frustration and disappointment, then put your heads together and get creative about ways to commemorate this significant time of life. Naomi and her mom are making plans to stage their own graduation “walk” that they will record and send to out-of-town family members who had planned to attend.
Listen to your senior and hold on to hope. “I think people are doing a good job of trying to figure out how to make senior activities happen,” says Naomi. “But when quarantine ends, I’m going to get together with my friends and do everything we can to celebrate.”
Jody Lee Cates is a local mom and award-winning writer who blogs about healthy relationships at www.jodyleecates.com