Within the last couple of years, after the world shut down from the COVID-19 pandemic when our pre-teens and teenagers should have been going about the business of attending football games, pep rallies, school dances, summer camps, and other typical events of their formative years, they were redirected to a world of uncertainty and isolation.
While adults didn’t like it, we could at least draw upon our life experience and perspective to cope with it. Were we worried about how to protect our families from COVID-19? Yes. Were we concerned about the security of our jobs and businesses? Absolutely. But adults possess a resilience that teenagers haven’t had time to develop.
Under normal circumstances, kids are typically in the process of learning, discovering, and creating their personal versions of this vital life skill during their teen years. The current generation wasn’t prepared to cope with the onslaught of fear, anxiety, and loneliness thrown at them so abruptly. So, what do we do now? We need to get our teens back on track toward developing resilience.
The pandemic interrupted our children’s emotional and social development with shelter-in-place orders, masks, and quarantines. Proms were canceled, sleepovers were halted, and basketball courts were suddenly empty. Sure, teens could find each other via cell phones, but it wasn’t the same as face-to-face hangouts and conversation.
What was going on in their minds and hearts during this time? We can see now that a slow build of mental health issues was brewing in our youngest citizens. According to the Surgeon General’s report, symptoms of anxiety and depression in youth doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent experiencing depression and 20 percent experiencing anxiety. As if the teenage years weren’t hard enough already, the 14 to 18-year-olds who represent the younger side of Generation Z have grown up in a world that feels scary and unsafe. There’s a gap in their ability to live carefree and happy lives because things were anything but carefree and happy for such a long time.
Helping kids to build resilience can help them manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. Resilience is the ability to recover from difficulties or adapt to change—to function as well as before and then move forward. Many refer to this as “bouncing back” from difficulties or challenges, both the large ones and the everyday ones. Resilient people learn from the experience of being able to effectively manage a situation and are better able to cope with stresses and challenges in future cases.
No one can promise teenagers that their lives will be free from challenges. Therefore, caring adults in their lives (such as parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, and youth pastors) should support and facilitate young people’s resilience as much as possible.
Connection, Conversation, and Community
Those of us in a position to encourage the well-being of today’s teenagers have an important role to play in facilitating opportunities for authentic connection, open conversation, and a strong sense of community.
Connection: One of the best ways to break down a teen’s anxiety and lift depression is to have some fun and take their minds off their fears and doubts. Yours may prefer to be with their friends rather than spend time with you but be ready to provide lots of family time for them when they need it. The most protective force in our children’s lives is their connection with their families. Young people also reap benefits from caring adults and peers in their school, community, and church. The more healthy connections they have, the better. Solid relationships allow us to be vulnerable because we know there’s someone in our life who genuinely cares. Participate actively in social outings, parties, and other shared events and activities to help teenagers bond with others. Encourage them to have fun, participate in extracurricular activities and develop new interests.
Conversation: Opening the door for communication is an important step for parents to hear directly from their children about how they’re doing. Sometimes the best time to start a conversation might be when you’re in the car together. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their children when they observe behavioral changes or signs of depression and anxiety. On the contrary, when we ignore the possibility they’re struggling with their mental health, we inadvertently communicate that it’s not something we should talk about and it’s not normal to feel. Ask open-ended questions and let them speak freely before you swoop in and try to fix it all with your wisdom and perspective. Talking about their feelings is the best way for them to process their emotions. Even if they only open up a tiny bit, it’s a start.
Community: This is a fantastic time for the youth, teen, and young adult ministries in our churches to link arms with parents in the community to provide help and resources. Teens may not prefer the term “support group,” but regardless of what it’s formally called, churches should facilitate groups for teens in the community that foster conversation with their peers about the things on their minds. Knowing they’re not alone can provide the comfort they need to build resilience. Whether they talk about pressures at school, issues with their parents, friend drama, or deeper issues like depression, having a safe place to be honest with peers who “get it” can be instrumental in helping them properly process their emotions. Peer-to-peer support plays a significant role in a person’s development of resilience and improved mental health. Programs like Fresh Hope for Teens can help churches and communities facilitate these kinds of positive relationships.
Although your teens may tell you they’re “not a kid anymore,” they’re still young and can keenly feel both the normal stresses of being a teen as well as the uncertainty in the world around them. As we strive to support them in developing stronger resilience, we are equipping them for a brighter, hope-filled future.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Brad Hoefs is a pastor, international speaker, and mental health advocate who is passionate about coaching, inspiring, and empowering others with hope no matter what circumstance they may be facing. He is best known as the founder and executive director of Fresh Hope for Mental Health, an international network of peer-to-peer Christian mental health support groups and resources. Hoefs is the author of “Fresh Hope: Living Well in Spite of a Mental Health Diagnosis and “Holding to Hope: Staying Sane While Loving Someone with a Mental Illness.”