No one will disagree that a high school student’s senior year is a big one. Students spend three years preparing for this time—the holy grail, their senior year. From the time they walk in those doors on their last first day, things feel different. They are the big men and women on campus. They are the most experienced, the most knowledgeable. They are privy to the finest things that high school has to offer—classes tailored to their interests, a prom to remember, and of course, that cap and gown. Many solidify their college plans that once felt so far away, and begin to prepare for a new chapter in their life while still closing the current one. For the seniors of 2020, however, their chapters have come to an abrupt end, one that no one expected. They will not be able to partake in a glittery prom, they do not get to savor their last greasy cafeteria lunches with friends; their caps and gowns will be worn only in their homes. Their diplomas will arrive with little pomp or circumstance.
There is no denying it. This. Is. Hard. It is hard for students to come to terms with the consequences of COVID-19, and it is hard for parents to watch them struggle to understand. It feels very personal, this robbery of these memorable life moments. Tyler Kotsis, a baseball player at Fort Zumwalt West High School in O’Fallon, MO, said, “It took away my senior baseball season, which I was looking forward to, and prom. I don’t know if we will get to walk at graduation yet. Ever since freshman year, I was looking forward to having a senior poster.” When he learned that his season had ended, he described it as “devastating.” After undergoing Tommy John (torn ligament) surgery in July, he worked hard to recover in time for games, set to begin in March. “I started working out, lost weight, had a lot of physical therapy, and I started working out with trainers and coaches. I was really looking forward to that senior season.” Many events that seniors dreamed of feel like something they will continue to dream about, rather than experience firsthand.
Talking With Your Teen
This is an abnormal situation, so it is unreasonable to expect that everyone will deal with it in a “normal” way. Teens may express anger, fatigue, boredom or frustration as they navigate this scenario. These could be ways that they are experiencing sadness or fear, among other emotions. Listen to your kids when they talk—they likely have a lot of feelings that they may or may not know how to convey. Most will cope even with this abnormal situation well, but how do parents know when their teen needs more help than they can provide? Changes in functioning or behavior can clue a parent into their student’s emotions. A normally social teen who is now isolating him/herself from peers and family and is no longer interested in chatting with friends may be dealing with mood problems. Similarly, one who is not engaging in available hobbies or interests or who has a lack of interest in those activities, may be experiencing sadness, worry or anger. Changes in sleep or appetite (too much or too little) may be cause for concern. Finally, a noted increase in irritability could prompt a parent to ask more about their teen’s emotions. It’s OK to ask about any thoughts of self-harm or thoughts of not wanting to be alive. If they endorse these types of thoughts, a parent should contact their child’s primary care physician or suicide hotline.
How Parents Can Support Students
There are many ways that parents can support their student while they pursue online high school. Structure is often a good thing for teens—it can be comforting to have a routine for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, working and exercising. This is not an empty opportunity. Prepare nutritious meals and snacks together, set bedtime guidelines and find creative ways to exercise. This is a chance for parents to be more engaged in their senior’s education and their emotional health than the constraints of our busy lives typically provide. Perhaps the most important way for parents to support their senior is to simply be there for them. Take this chance to really listen to them, to go outside or play board games with them, and to soak up all that you can before they embark on their journey after high school. Whether going to college or moving away, time with family often becomes more difficult after graduation. What a beautiful time to pause, look around and cherish the moments that we have been unexpectedly gifted. They will certainly remember and be grateful for the time they got to spend with their families during this uncharted time.
Students have come to terms with the new world around them in amazing ways. Some might find it easy to confront the situation head-on and accept the things that they cannot control. Tyler states that while “obviously this is tough…there’s no point in pouting or being sad because it is what it is and we have to take it seriously.” Accepting a situation, even one that we don’t like, is the starting ground to finding joy among circumstances that are beyond our power. This allows us to enjoy certain activities or aspects of our new lives. Some teens are playing more games, staying more active and spending more time with family than they ever have before. Still others are coping by creating art, writing stories, hosting virtual proms and harnessing the creativity that they are gifted with. These are great ways to engage in positive distraction.
Brighter Days Ahead
There are brighter days ahead. No matter what it feels like now, things will return to normal. We will be able to visit with our loved ones, eat rocky road at our favorite ice cream shop and attend a Cardinals game with 45,000 of our closest friends. Our seniors have goals, and nothing can get in the way of them. “I’m going to major in sports marketing,” says Tyler, who has signed his letter of intent to play baseball with the University of Central Missouri next year. He aims to work in a Major League Baseball front office and looks forward to the opportunities that college will provide him. But until then, all that we can do is wait and get through this together. When asked what he most looks forward to after the quarantine, Tyler responded, “Going to hang out with my friends one last time before we all split up and go to different colleges around the country.” We can look forward to the days that we can be together again and make plans that keep us looking up. For our seniors, it is especially important that they enjoy the last moments of high school. These are the moments that we never forget, in a circumstance as unique as our students themselves.
Here’s to the class of 2020.
*This article was written by Dr. Catherine Hutter, child psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital; her daughter Caitlin Hutter, school counselor; and her nephew Tyler Kotsis, Fort Zumwalt West senior.
Resources for Parents:
Identifying signs of stress in your children and teens (from the American Psychological Association)