Disruption Causing Unintended Collateral Damage

The current pandemic has disrupted the lives of adolescents in a variety of ways, not the least of which has been the delay or even the cancellation of key milestones. For high school seniors, most of the traditional events signaling the end of their high school careers – such as prom, spring vacation, graduation week festivities, and ceremonies were canceled.

Plans to visit college campuses so essential in helping seniors to make choices for their futures have been eliminated. For the athletes, season after season just never happened. And for those in music and theater, there were no final performances.

Milestone birthdays like quinceañeras, sweet 16s, and the all-important 18th have been relegated to quarantine along with the traditional celebrations celebrating those events. Critical summer internships, jobs, and programs for the most part didn’t happen due to social distancing restrictions.

While the disappointment and aggravation are palpable, the exact impact upon our youth of missing these milestones is still unknown. Researchers and psychologists are currently working to predict these effects, and thereby be in a better position to help and support teens and families with the potential fallout.

Why Milestones are Important to Adolescents

You may ask, “aside from missing the event itself, why are these milestones such a big deal?” To answer this question requires an understanding of how participation in activities such as prom, graduation, sports competitions, and theater/musical performances are so pivotal in adolescents’ development.

First of all, they provide opportunities for teens to build and cultivate peer relationships which are invaluable as the adolescent shifts from social interactions being family-focused to peer-focused.

Secondly, it’s through involvement in these milestones that teens develop independence and further their cognitive, academic, social, and emotional, skills in their march towards adulthood.

And finally, playing on sports teams, participating in extracurricular activities, or holding a job teaches teens about responsibility, cooperation, planning and organizing their time, and how to resolve conflicts outside the home.

The Consequences of Missing Milestones

Even without missing important milestones, adolescents are already experiencing other significant changes in their lives because of COVID-19. These include financial stress, safety concerns for themselves and their families, educational changes, as well as social distancing.

These changes and their accompanying stress, coupled with disrupted milestones, will very likely lead youth to experience feelings of loss, disappointment, sadness, anger, frustration, and anxiety. And those feelings will most certainly be echoed by their family members who were also looking forward to sharing with them in those events.

It must be kept in mind that teens dedicate time and energy to perform academically and graduate from high school, to compete in sports, and to create or display their art, and now when they have nothing to show for it, they may perceive that their hard work will see no reward. This may impair their motivation and cause them to question whether they should continue on their current path.

Missing out on a summer job may impact the financial stability of their household, and missing out on playing sports may put them at a deficit regarding their college recruitment.

For youth already experiencing behavioral health problems, or vulnerable to those problems, the cancellation of activities can reinforce symptoms of depression, such as prolonged sadness, low motivation, and social withdrawal which can result in lowered educational, social, and behavioral health functioning into adulthood.

6 Ways to Help Adolescents Through the Pandemic

  1. Explore creative ways to celebrate milestones and connect with peers (e.g., hosting a virtual prom, organizing a drive-by party).
  2. Give them ample space while monitoring concerning symptoms or behaviors.
  3. Find ways in which your teen can still work towards their activities and goals. For example, continue doing exercises associated with their sport, creating art, or studying to take a driver’s permit test.
  4. Validate their feelings, acknowledge their pain, be genuinely compassionate, and encourage the expression of the fullness of their emotions even though they may seem overly dramatic to you. For many seniors, this is a time of grief, akin to losing a family member or close friend. And they don’t know how to process it.
  5. It is essential to realize that there will be ups and downs. There is nothing linear about this entire experience. Just when you think that they are “getting over it,” the grumpiness and frustration may return with a vengeance. The key is to be overflowing with sensitivity and empathy for all of those “last times” that will never happen. And recognize that your more “rational” response in the place of what you consider to be their more “irrational” one will only serve to separate them from you.

Continue to follow research about how missing milestones impact teens and their well-being, and the possible short-term and long-term consequences.