This article is by Chap Clark PH.D. and published by AACC
“We are still toiling up the hill; we have not yet reached the crest-line of it; we cannot survey the landscape or even imagine what its condition will be when that longed-for morning comes.”1– Winston Churchill
It has been called “the beginning of a ‘little ice age.’”2 Are you one of those people who is done with Zoom,© bored by Netflix,© and empathizes with mask ignoring 20-somethings—someone who just cannot take it anymore? COVID-19 has taken a toll on us all. The refrain, “back to normal,” is con- stant, but what is normal, anyway?
And that’s just the pandemic. Then, in the blink of an eye, or rather, eight minutes and 46 seconds, we went from dealing with masks and “social distanc- ing” to coming face-to-face with race and injustice, protesting, and policing. On top of these, we find ourselves in an election cycle that reduces every issue to an excruciating choice of two polar opposites. Like a Mike Tyson 30-second knock- out, we find ourselves face down on the canvas, barely aware of what’s happened, and wondering how or if we can ever stand upright again in 2020.
Let’s face it; we’re tired… no, we’re exhausted! We’re scared, angry, and have never felt so powerless or isolated. And that’s adults! What has all this done to our young? Since we are still in the middle of it all, it is impossible to predict how this year will shape growing up. It will take years to fully understand the toll 2020 has on the development and long-term psyche of today’s children, adoles- cents, and young adults. From what we do know, there is every indication that we are going to have mental health challenges for Millennials and Generation Z, if not an outright mental health crisis. In a March poll (two months before the George Floyd tragedy) of mental health practitioners, respondents reported that mental health, including feelings of anxiety and depression, worsened dur- ing the COVID-19 crisis for two-thirds of Gen Z and Millennials.3 There is no doubt that the longer we find ourselves under the pressure of this unprecedented season, at a minimum, there will be wide-sweeping PTSD across all generations and, more acutely, for the young.
Now is the time for caretakers of the young—parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and therapists—to prepare ourselves to be proactive in our care for, and nurture of, developing young people. Adults who care for anyone from 10-years- old to their late 20s will need to retool for a whole new developmental reality.
What We Can Assume
Although we do not know much, we do know some. As we eventually begin to emerge from the strange and chaotic world our young people have experienced over the last several months, we can safely assume three consequences.
First, the cumulative experiences of 2020 will affect every young person. While some speculate that those in healthy families will have the greatest ability to thrive once we emerge from our social cocoons, there is little doubt that even in the midst of a strong familial sup- port system the upheaval and polarization of the social fabric that we have all been accustomed to will have some effect. For young people, the pandemic alone would have wreaked havoc on the developmental work of identity formation and belonging. However, the perfect storm of quarantining combined with the constant polarizing political rhetoric cannot help but cre- ate an internal upheaval with the developmental need to socially integrate. In other words, there is little about our national lives that has not been thoroughly challenged or even shattered. Every young person will be forced to navigate a whole new world, and that will take its toll on everyone.
Second, the need for real, tangible relationships that our preteens and adolescents can count on will overpower the relational superficiality of the tech relationships on which they have come to rely. Freewheeling texting, TikTok,© and gaming connections may have been relatively satisfying pre-COVID, but coming out of this skimming across the top layers of relationships will not come close to fulfilling the developmental needs of these young people. In 2021 and beyond, there will be an entire generation that will be starving for safe, authentic, mutually- supportive, trusting people who they can count on consistently.
Third, very few will come out of the crisis with the experience and tools to be able to find, develop, and maintain the relationships in which they long for so desperately. Prior to March, the majority of adolescents and emerging adults experienced their relationships in relatively controllable and bite-sized patterns. Reliance on social media and other technological touchpoints fed enough of an adolescent’s need for intimacy and connection to be able to survive the vagaries of the über comparative and competitive social landscape, even if they had few significant or vulnerable conversations with those in their relational cluster. Young people coming out of the lockdown will be forced to renegotiate the nature of their friendships and what it means to develop mutually reliant and supportive peer relationships. This process will become even more essential because of their visceral need for these connections. However, opening up to others without the experience and skills needed to safely create such networks is risky and will be a challenge for many of our young.
Every young person, from early adolescent to emerging adult, is going to be affected by this experience. There will be a greater hunger for intimate and real relationships, and many, if not most, will not know how to develop and sustain the social support they crave. Certainly, there will be some level of trauma for everyone, and, for some, it will run deep.
What Can We Do to Help?
Although the need for adult social capital in the lives of young people has been well documented for decades,4 more than ever before, caretakers (parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, pastors, and therapists) will be necessary to help our young learn how to walk and, ultimately, thrive in the years ahead. Resilience from trauma is achievable, but rarely without safe and authentic social support. There are four influences that each young person needs from the adult community to give them the best possible hope in the com- ing months and years.
1. Adults must first take care of themselves. While this might sound obvious or even trite, it cannot be assumed or overlooked. To engage and serve the needs of our young, we must provide them a worry-free refuge
of strength and make sure they never feel the need to “caretake” their caretaker. We must do our own work to ensure that we are not further burdening those who need our support.
2. Be available. Most adults think they are available simply because they are “willing” to be available. However, the majority of young people feel that most adults in their lives are only present when it suits them, or when they have earned their attention. Being available means to be proactively, strategically, and intentionally present not only when it is sought out or convenient, but at all times. Young people may not know how to ask for this kind of presence, or maybe even be aware that they want it or even need it, espe- cially coming out of the events over the last several months. Therefore, it is up to us—the caretakers, the adults—to be diligent. It is our job to observe, listen, and be ready to be there for them in any circumstance and at any moment.
3. Initiate authentic friendships with the young. These relationships can be established without sacrificing the necessity of the role that we play in their lives. Although tricky, it is time once and for all to drop the mythical bi- nary of being either a “friend” or a “parent” (or other adult supporter). Each of us must learn how to be both a dedi- cated adult presence and a supportive friend. Consider the best parent, teacher, or coach you have known. With few exceptions, they were able to provide both the hierarchical leadership of their role while also communicating genuine care and support. By unashamedly maintaining the role we play in their lives, we must also make sure young people know that we genuinely like them and will not allow them to be wounded even as we are helping them learn and grow. It is simply a fallacy to think that a “firm hand” is all young people need from us. In a world where this generation wonders who genuinely cares for them—regardless of their performance, conformity, or image—each of them needs to know they have a fan in their corner.
4. When invited in, lead with stories. It is easy to think that once we have young people’s attention that the best we can do for them is “pour our lives” into them as individuals. In practice, this often means that we lead with instruction or advice. This interaction can, and usually does, communicate the opposite of what we intend—a message that says, “I don’t believe in you, and, without me, you have little to offer.” Once we have built the bridge of presence and trust with an adolescent or young adult, the best gift we can offer that individual is our own lives. By sharing our stories, especially those where we learned by stumbling and climbing back up again, we can be an encouragement to keep moving forward. There will be time for instruction—how to respectfully disagree with someone, how to listen before offering your own opinion, etc.—but the most powerful moments that build confidence and hope in us are when we believe that we have the agency to make a difference in the world… especially in the lives of others. And that happens when we are sitting within one another’s stories.
As we all return from this “little ice age,” may we not neglect those who rely on us to help them crawl out of the caves and stand upright. Our greatest legacy in the years to come will be how we held, listened to, and lifted up our young as they helped us all heal from the lessons we are learning from 2020.