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How to Help Teens Handle the Loss of Proms and Graduations

 

 

 

by; Christine Carter, Ph.D.,

Like many young people around the world, this is a kid who has weathered some deep disappointments in the last month. She was studying at an art school, a once-in-a-lifetime semester program, when COVID-19 hit. Classes aren’t the same when you don’t have the materials, studio, and equipment you need for printmaking, sculpture, and developing your film.

1. Acknowledge their loss

It’s true that their disappointment about not going to prom or having graduation is trifling compared to the tragedies that thousands of families are facing right now. Many people have lost family members who they didn’t get to say goodbye to, loved ones who died alone and terrified in an ICU.

And it’s also true that our kids’ losses and their resulting grief are real. Most of them don’t have the life experience that would help them put something like a canceled prom into perspective. Discounting their very real frustration and sadness will only make them feel worse. We adults can help them feel better by acknowledging both their losses and also their feelings about the loss. Empathy is a powerful medicine.

2. Name their feelings

If you are raising or teaching teenagers, you already know that adolescents experience their emotions much more intensely than adults. This is normal and appropriate and it can be distressing to us as adults. To be truly empathic, we need to listen without trying to fix or take away their grief. Helping kids identify what they are feeling can, ironically, ease their pain. If your adolescent starts telling you a story about an imagined future, perhaps bringing up worst-case scenarios in which they aren’t able to go off to college gently bring them back to what they are feeling right now, about the current disappointment.

3. Teach them about grief

You may recognize that your teenager is grieving, but your teenager probably doesn’t. There is power in naming what teens are experiencing as grief; it helps them acknowledge and validate their own experience. We adults can’t deliver teens straight to acceptance, but we can try to model it. By accepting these challenging circumstances, and also by accepting our own and our teens’ feelings, we can bring a calm acceptance to our household.

4. Help them find meaning

Meaning comes from the light we find in dark times. It might come from the gratitude we feel for our family or a sense of awe that overcomes us on a hike. And, often, meaning comes from helping others. Again and again, research has shown that even in dire circumstances we feel better when we turn our attention to supporting others. This is true for teenagers as well. It’s not surprising that teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. They cope with their own challenges more effectively, and they feel more supported by others.

As we approach what is likely to be a long summer for our kids mine all had jobs and plans that are now in question we can ask them: How can you be helpful to others during this time? How can you channel your frustration and anger? Our questions may or may not spark something in them. They may not be ready or able to find meaning. Whether or not they see it now, meaning will likely come from simply enduring this difficult time. These kids, even the full-grown ones who are now living with us again are getting a crash course in dealing with discomfort and disappointment.

While it’s true that a joyful life comes from positive emotions, it also comes from resilience from having the tools needed to cope with life’s inevitable difficulties and painful moments. The silver lining for this generation is that, like it or not, they are gaining the skills they need to cope with difficulty. Fortunately, these are skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

 

 

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