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Steps to help youth during COVID

Charting a Course to Support Youth Mental Health during COVID19 

The only thing I knew how to do  was to keep on keepin’ on  -Bob Dylan “Tangled up in blue”

Perhaps Dylan’s words capture the temptation of many in a time of crisis to put their head down and push forward as if nothing has changed…as if we are not changing with every new revelation of how scary our world is becoming.

Parents, teachers, and administrators find ourselves faced with both familiarity and uncertainty in the face of a worldwide pandemic. While all of us are being impacted in some way, shape or form, there is no doubt that those already vulnerable are feeling the brunt of it–from a lack of access to adequate technological advances that facilitate remote learning to hot meals and access to medical care.

Whether by design or chance, our communal responses have the potential to become the responses of the children and adolescents around us, as our young “internalize” our responses as their own. Thus, our power to shape youth is apparent in this state of crisis and in this moment of possibility. As practitioners and educators, we call upon others to help chart a course that neither understates nor heightens the urgency facing our communities and our families; yet, we know this will be difficult for many given the restrictions and isolation happening right now. We need to provide tools for teachers engaging in virtual teaching; parents struggling to figure out how to talk and help their children; and children and youth who need direction on how to think about the current situation.

While there may not actually be dangerous sea monsters waiting for us, we are nonetheless in uncertain, scary and uncharted territory. This cannot and should not be denied while considering the developmental stage of our children and youth. Our challenge, as adults then, is to present information to children and youth in a way that neither denies nor overwhelms them. We need to talk, discuss and handle this situation to our young children differently than we do with our middle school children and our older adolescents. We know the landscape has shifted under our feet, especially for those preparing to enter college or the workforce. Young children need information given to them in smaller chunks and in more concrete language to not overwhelm them (e.g., The virus is like a bad germ and lots and lots of really smart people are working on ways to kill the virus.) Middle school children are still thinking in more concrete terms but can handle more complex information (e.g., Coronavirus is like other viruses, the cold and the flu except it is nastier and scientists from around the world are working on vaccines to reduce the numbers and severity of this nasty virus.) When speaking with older youth who are vacillate between concrete (black and white thinking) and formal (relativistic) ways of thinking adults must evaluate and question how much information the older youth can handle before assuming what they can and cannot handle (e.g., So what have you been hearing about the Coronavirus?). Responses will depend on how the older adolescent responds. In some cases, your response would be similar as responses given to other adults. However, adults need to evaluate responses on a case by case basis. This is because youth are vacillating at this developmental stage. Thus, the recommendation is for adults to check in frequently with the adolescent by asking them how they are feeling and what they are thinking about the current situation.

One of our most central needs in times of crisis is connection. And yet at this very moment, we are being called to engage in “social distancing.” What are we to do? Well, we can and must do both!  But we’re going to need to rewrite the rules of social engagement, so our young understand how to navigate this global challenge. During this call for “social distancing”, we need to remember that emotional bonds have the power to sustain dreams and nurture hopes for the future. We need to educate and strategize on how to connect and collaborate all while practicing social distancing. Fortunately, technology provides a venue for us to check in, share resources, and help each other cope – essentially, building strong community ties. Now is the time to start exploring some of these technologies and ensure our kids have the resources they need to continue to connect with each other and mentors that can support them.

Young people look to adults to know what is possible and what has the potential to be realized. We should not hide the realities of our world in the throes of a worldwide pandemic. This is not a moment to “keep on keepin’ on.” It is not, by any means, a moment to foreclose on the future either but a moment to talk to our kids about change and how to ensure the fears of the moment do not negate the dreams of what is possible tomorrow. As young people react to the news of school closings and at-home learning, they hold, with whatever courage they can muster, hopes for the future.

It is with this in mind, that we remind and encourage youth-serving-organizations of our collective responsibility to galvanize others, to lean on each other and rally behind policies that empower youth to continue exploring and seeking assistance that will enable them to continue dreaming and mapping a pragmatic course of action. Let us support those hopes by acknowledging the uncharted territory ahead of us and our abilities to navigate rough seas. Let us (re)build the sense of possibility and nurture a sense of wonder while acknowledging the realities facing our children and ourselves. We are the mapmakers and can provide youth and those working with them with the maps they will need to navigate the uncertain waters and possible shores ahead. We are here to help! In our next blog, we will address the “normal transition” issues, e.g., school-to-career and school-to-higher education, that have been exacerbated by the current COVID19 pandemic.

Mary Beth Medvide, PhD | Carmen N. Veloria, EdD | Debra A. Harkins, PhD


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