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Guiding Teens through Missed Milestones

This will be quite a tough May for many of our teenagers. May is prom season. It’s when spring athletes would be finishing up their seasons and possibly competing for championships. It’s when those in performing arts showcase all their hard work through instrumental talents, singing, dancing or acting. Perhaps most notable is that May signals preparation for graduation. This year’s senior class won’t get to experience these milestones the way they had expected or planned just a couple short (er, very long) months ago. For many, coping with that has been, or will be, trying.

Similar to grieving the loss of a loved one, grieving the loss of these milestones is frustrating, maddening, confusing and sad. The phrase, “Life isn’t fair” has never been more true than it is right now. But that’s not what our teens need to hear. And it’s certainly not what they want to hear. Never more have our teens needed our empathy than in the face of missing these events, which likely are or would be the best, most memorable experiences of their young lives.

As we parents fumble our way through helping our teens cope, there are many things we could say that may be hurtful rather than helpful – even if they’re well-intentioned. We may have the ideas of (1) telling our teen how much better the next phase of life is; (2) recounting horror stories from our own lives at the same stage; or (3) saying, “well at least you won’t have to deal with or worry about ______.” These types of statements attempt to help our teens look on the brighter side, but maybe they want, and quite frankly need, to wade in these waters of sadness and disappointment for a little while. Trying to help them look on the brighter side could invalidate or devalue the emotions they’re feeling, and lead to that dreaded phrase no parents want to hear: “you just don’t understand!”

So, what can we do to help our teens navigate these milestones? (NOTE: these tips are in part from Dr. Neil Sonenklar, child and adolescent psychiatry, Children’s Hospital of Richmond – adapted from his Zoom lecture “Mental Health in Teens During Quarantine”)

  1. State the obvious: Life sucks! Or however you’d like to phrase it. This acknowledges their sense of loss, and helps them to see you “get it.”
  2. Let them vent. Not all day, everyday. Give them 10 minutes everyday to express their frustration, sadness, or other emotions of grief. But after that they need to drop it (until the next day).
  3. Ask: “Is there something we can do to honor this occasion?” Keep it open-ended. It could be something to do now. It could be something in a couple months when restrictions are loosened. It could be both. Don’t offer your suggestions, at least not at first. There’s going to be awkward silence. That’s ok. Again, if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one there are a lot of moments of awkward silence. Honoring something or someone fosters acknowledgement, celebration, remembrance of good, reflection on a long path successfully navigated, and assurance that though not physically experienced these milestones won’t be forgotten.

Unless they ask for your input, it’s best for your teen to explore how honoring a missed milestone would be most meaningful to them. Your role as parent is to support, and help guide them through this. Not to do things for them in hopes of cheering them up. So start a dialogue, and let your teen know you’re there when they’re ready to talk.