High school and college students have had their lives turned upside down. 

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In these unprecedented times, your teenager or twentysomething is probably experiencing a flood of emotions as they deal with the impact of the coronavirus on their academic, social and personal lives. As their attitudes and feelings swing from day to day, you’re probably struggling with how to help your child.

To assist you with these challenges, I asked Lisa C. DeLuca, LCSW-R, a psychotherapist in private practice, to answer some of the questions I think you might have. Just as important as her professional credentials is the fact that she’s the mom of two college students, a sophomore and a senior.

With their academic and social lives upended, what are high school and college students possibly feeling?

Loss, disappointment and grief are probably the top three things that many seniors in high school and college are feeling. And anger, which is one of the stages of grief. Though no one may have died, like death, this is a loss and the normal response to loss is grief. All grief is difficult. In a way these kids are actually losing a person—they are losing a part of themselves! They are losing their chance to live the life of a graduating senior in their institution, someone who they’ve aspired to become for so long. Overnight it was taken away and they can never get it back.

Adults experience losses similar to this when they’re fired from a job they love, forced to retire before they’re ready or when their spouse decides to end their marriage. The frustration and feelings of unfairness, finality and being blindsided are palpable. It’s “having the rug pulled out” from under you. Seniors were not mentally ready for the ending that was ahead of them (graduation and leaving school) and thought they had time to prepare. Adjusting takes time.

For all students, this loss involves a drastic change in their routine and, for those who were living away from home or heavily involved in activities, the removal of all familiar supports.

Also any time your role changes in life, this causes stress. Independent resident students have returned to being in their parent’s home. Upperclassmen, athletes and leads in the school play are now just children and siblings with no schedule.

It’s also important to note that some kids are quite fine with the transition. They may feel more comfortable at home. They may have been experiencing problems with friends at school. Or they may prefer online learning. Some may be very worried about the state of the world or fear for the health of loved ones. Other kids may not be as concerned.  All kids are different.

How does a parent support their teenager/young adult who’s in the midst of this upheaval?

I want, and hope and pray, as do all adults, that kids will know and understand that while this feels like the end of their world right now, they will not feel this bad forever and things will get better. But if they are in grief about the loss of school, now is not the time to rush in with this message.

Your student needs to be pissed off and sad for a while and you need to allow it because if they’re talking to you about their feelings, that’s healthy and that’s one of the ways grief works itself out.

If you try to talk them out of their feelings or point out that there are bigger things to worry about, you’ll drive their feelings underground and incorrectly teach them that they are selfish for grieving. They may stop talking to you and turn to unhealthy forms of self-soothing, and you will lose the opportunity to know what’s going on with them and to influence them. Instead, explain that it’s normal to feel grief after a loss and acknowledge that they have experienced a sizable loss.

Some students will already be asking themselves how they can be so sad about losing their school year when other people are losing loved ones to the virus, health care workers are sacrificing everything to heal people, the world is in chaos and real financial losses will push some people, maybe even their own families, into poverty.  They may feel selfish and guilty for not being able to shake their upset about school but they may not even understand why they feel so guilty.

So the worst thing you can do is pile on by telling them they are being selfish and overreacting. Grief is grief and it’s to be expected.

As adults we know that these students are being called to get over this crappy hurdle that was thrown at them and go on to have fruitful lives of joy and satisfaction. When we think of some of the past hurdles we’ve overcome in our own lives, we know this is true and we want our children to know it, too. But listen first. Acknowledge their loss. Then let them know that you are confident they will feel better in time and things will work out.

Let them know that when you’re in a crisis, it’s never time to make a permanent decision and that they just need to ride this out for a while. That said, any student feeling hopeless, seriously depressed or who is having suicidal thoughts or self-harming should seek help immediately.

Your calm presence will do more for your kids than you know. Allow your child to talk, encourage them, ask how they are doing. Listen and let them know that you’re there for them.

With big events cancelled for seniors—graduation and the list of “lasts” —what can a parent say or do to help with the disappointment and lack of closure?

 There are no words. It can’t be fixed. Let them mourn. Let them know you’re by their side. Don’t try to talk them out of it but do let them know that you have faith that everything will be better. Let them express negative feelings, but if that seems to be escalating and making things worse over time, don’t let that go on forever.

Feelings are there to give you energy to solve problems. If they can’t get over their feelings about the lost prom and talking doesn’t help, then it’s time for action. Help them plan something that will make them feel some joy in the face of sorrow. The cancelling of this event was out of everyone’s control but what control do they have? They can’t do prom but what can they do today? Gaining control over what you can rather than dwelling on things you can’t is where a ton of healing takes place.

What do you do for a child who won’t take the restrictions seriously, like stay home, avoid contact with friends, practice good hygiene, etc.?

This is just a non-negotiable. You all have an obligation to each other to prevent infection while you’re sharing this space. Keeping infection out of the house is especially crucial for families who have vulnerable individuals living with them.

People need to understand the science behind the spread and the importance of flattening the curve, so educating everyone in the house is key. Once the house rules are established, they are simply non-negotiable. For those over 18, it’s follow the rules or live somewhere else. For minors you just say no to their requests that do not fit with your safety protocols.

I hope the guidance from Lisa C. DeLuca helps you better understand what your student is feeling and is useful in finding ways to support your child. In Part 2 of our interview, she’ll share more about helping your whole family through these difficult times and how to know when to look for mental health care for your teen or young adult and where to find it. Follow my blog to get Part 2 delivered to your inbox.