Supporting Teens Through Times of Crisis

My guest this week is Max Ziegenhagen. Max is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist here in Colorado Springs. His practice combines the disciplines of trauma and family therapy and much of his work focuses on teens and their families. This content is taken from our Instagram Live conversation and has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Brooke: Max I wanted to talk with you today about teens because you work with a lot of teens, but also because this pandemic is such a hard time for them. Developmentally, this is a time in life when kids are social and when they are figuring out who they are. They figure out who they are by being around other kids and spending time in social circles. To have that removed is really difficult for them. So I want to talk a little bit about some of the ways parents can help their kids and how parents can help themselves in this unprecedented situation.

Max: I liked that you started off with the idea that socializing and interacting are a huge part of life as a teenager. Adolescence is when we make those primary connections that provide a foundation for the relationships we will have for the rest of our lives. As I am talking with a lot of teenagers right now, they are telling me that the whole experience of loneliness right now is very hard. They may have online platforms to connect for school and some social interactions, but it's not the same as being together. There is a difference and I think a lot of teenagers are really feeling that right now.

Brooke: Yeah, and that loneliness is showing up in behavior and not necessarily in emotional language, because not all teens have the emotional language to express what this feels like for them.

Let's get to our first question. It’s one I’ve heard a lot about and I think it's really heartbreaking.

Q: My senior is missing her prom and graduation. How can I help her make some meaning from all of this and process difficult emotions?

Max: That's a really important question because it is coming up a lot right now. Most people recognize how important these rites of passage really are for us and for our teenagers. As a culture we haven't had a lot within the last two decades that is what we would call “grief worthy.” I think 9/11 was a pretty significant crisis but having a crisis like this where we are stuck at home, where we aren't participating the same way, is a very, very new thing for all of us, even for us as parents.

I think it’s important to provide your teenager with some language to address what it's like to suffer or to grieve. In our culture and as individuals we are not good grievers. We don't really have an active process anymore for what it looks like to grieve something. We either talk about it for a moment and then try to push past it, or we put those feelings somewhere else and try to be fine or happy. What's going on right now isn't fine or happy. It's really sad, right?

Brooke: I agree and so giving them language and mourning with them is important. I think we need to create ritual around that grief. Regardless of what happens later, whether this is postponed and you get to have a prom or graduation, I think it's really important that we as parents and as a community find a way to create ritual around the thing that these teens have lost

Max: We've had rituals of grief all through our cultural history, such as wearing black for a year. We don't really have that anymore. One of the things that can be helpful is recognizing the fact that your teen’s desire for belonging and community and socialization reflect actual needs that are not being met. We need to understand how hard this is for a lot of high school seniors and teens. Not everybody feels it the same way, but everybody is experiencing it on their own, in their own space right now. That isolation is part of the grief. Normally, if something big happened we would get together with friends and talk about it. Now, a lot of that connection is either being done technologically, or it's not being done at all. Just giving them an opportunity to talk through their experience is vital,

Q: I was hoping to connect more with my teen now that we're all home, but she just stays in her room and on her screen and I feel disappointed and frustrated. What should I expect from her right now?

Max: It is a good question and one that I get frequently. When we are honest with ourselves we know that underneath the frustration there is some other emotion. This is a silly example, but if I were to kick somebody in the shin right now, they would probably get pretty frustrated with me. But they would be frustrated because they were hurt. They might also be sad that this “nice therapeutic individual” just attacked them, or afraid that I'm going to do it again. But anger or frustration or irritability is never the first emotion.

So sometimes we as parents have an opportunity to model to our teens what it looks like to interact with emotion. They may be distancing themselves in the same way that you're getting irritated. Sometimes when our expectations are left unmet it's in large part because those expectations were never truly communicated. We might be frustrated by our unmet expectations but we never just went to our teen to ask them “Hey, when would be a good time to spend some time together?” or “What could we do together that you would enjoy?” It starts with at least asking the question and seeking to connect.