The Kids Are Not Alright

Teenagers have been on my mind. For those of you who are parents of teenagers, or who are related to a teenager, listen up, this is for you.

I have been somewhat flabbergasted, and frankly a little shocked at times when I asked friends over the past year how their kids (teenagers) were doing, which is kind of a big question in the time of a pandemic…and some of them shrugged and said lightly, “Oh, they’re alright.” Or… “Oh you know, he’s kind of oblivious to everything.” Or, “We are really loving our family time.” At first I thought wow, maybe my kids are the only ones having a terrible time of this. Or maybe I’m overthinking this. Or maybe I’m just a terrible parent. But no. Because you know what? They are not alright. Even the ones that you think are alright, they are not.

I have read countless articles about how teenagers are suffering through this pandemic. I have cried on the phone with our pediatrician, who assured me I am not the only one. We are not the only ones. I have spent so many sleepless nights worrying about how my son is going to continue to navigate high school like this. I’ve bargained with myself, I’ve tried the unrealistic optimism approach that things will be better. I have tried to keep a sense of humor (sometimes not very successfully). But, yet, the nagging little voice. He’s not alright. They’re not alright.

Our school district is among the best, we are very lucky, and I know this and I appreciate it. They have done all they can do to keep the kids in school safely. But yet, these kids feel they are literally being punished for going to school. Or not going to school. Or seeing friends. Or not seeing friends. You see, every choice they make comes with a set of consequences, and it’s impossible to make any good (or “right”) choices. If they see friends, they risk exposure to COVID. If they don’t see friends, they are much more likely to feel sad and depressed. If they go to school, they feel weird and it’s not the greatest experience. If they don’t go to school, they are more isolated and it’s not the greatest experience. I can’t figure out how to be supportive. I’ve tried every angle, and none of it really fits – where is the pandemic parenting guidebook? Because of the depression J suffered with last spring, we have tried to allow him some freedom to see some friends (not in large groups), but his close group in the safest settings possible. It seemed the most reasonable path in my mind, and to keep his mental health in balance.

That seemed to be working, although they still obviously are giving up and missing out on a lot of normalcy. But a few weeks ago he went to a friends house, and there were people there outside his usual “pod”. One of them tested positive for COVID and all of them had to quarantine. In the week following, J had two negative tests, so he did not get infected, but he was very quiet. He stayed more to himself, barely talking, if he even came out of his room at all. One of his friends did get the virus and had symptoms. When I was driving him to get his COVID test, I asked, “You know that I’m not mad at you, right”? And he said, “No, I thought you guys were really mad at me.” And I said, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You went to a friend’s house.” Let that sink in. He thought he was in trouble because he went to a friend’s house. He said that they all felt like they did something wrong, and that they were worried they were going to get in trouble with the school. If you add this pressure into the mix of kids who are trying to please, it’s the ultimate sadness.

It was at that point that I just thought, wow, how much have we burdened our kids? We have literally asked the impossible from them, and then we are disappointed when they can’t deliver. How have we made them feel so inadequate? They don’t deserve this. They feel punished for literally every action, and then they retreat. We (collectively, people in charge of them) said “Sure, you can play your sport, but it could be shut down literally any minute because of something you do (or don’t do) or because someone else who you don’t even know stands next to someone who has COVID.” I don’t know how we can support them, or fix it, or make it better. I have no advice. I do know that I get even more angry when I hear people being judgmental: “tsk tsk” these kids just don’t know how to behave.

Listen. They are doing the best that they can. WE are doing the best that we can. There are no good options.

I don’t know what the lasting effects of this pandemic will be for these kids, the ones poised to be independent and trying to figure things out about themselves in their Senior year of high school, and have been squashed. All I know is that there will be lasting effects. I hope and pray that they will put this in their rearview mirror eventually, but it’s no joke – it’s not something they will ever speak lightly about. I take the words of advice that are often swirling in my head, just have grace – a lot of it – be a good listener, and be forgiving. That’s the best that we can do.