the lost teens of the pandemic

Mary came home from school the other day and said, “You know that dream where you’re about to take a final but you haven’t attended class all semester? That’s how my life feels right now.”

For the last month, Mary’s been attending school in person, but as she says, “It’s like I’ve been rendered invisible. Everyone moved on without me.” Because of fragile health in our extended family, Mary primarily attended school online this year.

I know she’s not alone. It’s been a rough year for students; a rough year for teachers. Even for students attending on campus, pandemic education leaves much to be desired. My nephews in California have been online only since last March. But it’s a little tricky here simply because there has been a choice. We’re in the same storm, but in very different boats.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard the latest stats: 46% of parents of teens said their child has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic.

46% is a big number. And if you simply asked, “Has your teen struggled significantly during the pandemic?” I think the number would climb up to 90%. It’s been a hard time for teens. At a time in their lives when friends and activities and events make all the school pressure and hormones bearable– they’ve had it all ripped away. Further, they’ve been told they can’t complain because missing graduations and dances and hanging out to eat pizza are first-world problems and so many people have it worse.

And it’s true. People have it much worse. But we’re losing our teens. I can’t tell you how many friends have frantically sent out a group message searching for a teen therapist, openly asked about anti-depressants on Facebook, and sat in the hospital with their child after a suicide attempt. A recent “how is everyone doing?” thread in a private group revealed serious struggles in every household.

Because of these stressors, a lot of parents relaxed Covid restrictions for their teens pretty early on in the game. I get it. I really do. I wish we could have at our house. And if we’d lived in a different place, without frail family members, without a real concern about spreading the virus, Mary might be in those groups of 20 kids smiling for the Instagram post.

I know she’s not alone. There are thousands of teens who’ve slipped between the cracks. Who said “no” enough times to hanging out that no one asks anymore. Teens who show up in class or online, but no one sees them. Whose friends still ask for homework help or advice with their student gov campaign, but not to watch a movie on Friday night.

But as Mary points out, knowing a lot of other people are hurting doesn’t help much– it’s like saying, “Hey, a lot of people break their leg.” You still feel the deep throbbing pain, you still have to navigate crutches and bump into doorways. And with a physical illness, you receive sympathy. When you’re struggling with loneliness and depression, people turn away.

I recently heard about an elderly couple who started taking cookies to teens in their neighborhood. They included a note saying, “We know it’s been a hard year. We love you and we’re praying for you.” I don’t even know if this story is true, but it soothes my heart. I think of how many times my kids have taken cookies or flowers to the elderly, how many times they’ve shoveled driveways, mowed lawns, raked leaves, cleaned kitchens and bathrooms… There’s a general assumption that teens are living a fun, self-centered life. Maybe some teens are living a frivolous, selfish life– I dearly hope so. But so many are in pain.

If you have teens who are doing well, I’m genuinely so happy for you. Please encourage them to spread kindness. And if your teen is hurting, please know you are not alone. It may not help teens to know a lot of them are struggling, but I do think it helps parents.

Please don’t think I’m complaining. Mary’s fine. We’re rallying around her as a family; she’s excited about college and she’s building a life. But maybe, you can reach out to someone around you. Take someone cookies; help someone feel seen. Encourage your teens to reach out. People get lost, but they can also be found.

April 28, 2021

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2 Comments

  1. Laura

    April 23, 2021

    I loved this post and found it really insightful. As a mom of younger kids, the teen struggle wasn’t on my radar until I was asked to serve in young women’s. I LOVE the idea of baking cookies and writing a note! Always looking for ways to show them I have their back! Thank you Michelle!

  2. angie

    May 8, 2021

    Hi Michelle, I’m looking for your post from last year about the Mystery Dinner party (not sure that is what it’s called) that you and Mary hosted for high school friends. It looks and sounds like so much fun. There was a link to the address to purchase the script. I would like to buy the script, but I can’t find it now. Could you please send me the date of the post or the link? Thank you so much.

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