Are the Kids Really OK?
Young people are suffering in silence during this global pandemic. If you know young people ages 10-17 years old, then you have experienced how difficult it can be to have a conversation that goes beyond the one or two word responses like “OK,” “I’m fine,” or “Nothing.”
With school closures, orders for physical distancing and the health crisis looming, it is only natural for young people to feel a sense of stress, isolation and confusion. Emotions that even we as adults cannot always wrap our arms around.
We want to believe that young people are resilient, and therefore, will navigate these challenges the same way they navigate so many other day-to-day challenges. But, the reality is it may be too much this time. Our kids are not OK!
As the CEO of MENTOR New York, I lead a team that spends its days supporting the mentors, mentoring professionals and youth development leaders in our community that serve young people. As we listen to their stories and provide guidance and support, we have learned some critical things about what young people are facing.
The technology gap is real and widening the disparities in education and social emotional development.
For children in low-income communities and attending schools with limited resources, the stress multiplies. If they were struggling in school already, virtual learning is only adding to the academic divide they experience.
For these young people, a lack of technological hardware and connectivity is an issue. For low-income families, having a laptop or mobile device available for daily use can be a hardship. Many middle class families with multiple children are also struggling to provide individual devices that allow each child to complete their work timely and with ease. This is only one of the many challenges to getting connected.
Although many of our kids are tech savvy, learning virtually is an entirely different skillset, and there is a steep learning curve that they are still navigating eight weeks into the pandemic.
Since virtual learning was implemented hastily, there was a lack of in-person orientation for the virtual platforms selected by schools. Couple that with the limited additional tutoring and instructional guidance needed to complete assignments, many of our young people are left feeling frustrated and unintelligent. This may lead to a fear of failure which creates a paralysis of participation. These feelings of inadequacy are discouraging and can result in disengagement and absenteeism.
Academics provide a source of growth and learning. Social interactions are also a key part of learning. Schools, afterschool programs, sports, mentoring and youth programs provide young people with the social connectivity they need to develop healthy relationships with others. They also develop the social skills needed to navigate the world and become in tune with their emotions. In the absence of these sources and activities, we know that young people experience major social isolation and may experience depression and anxiety at greater rates than usual. Although many of these programs are offering virtual options to connect with youth, those that cannot connect are left isolated. As a result, they will push away those seeking to support them because they cannot articulate or find the words to describe the magnitude of their loneliness, stress and sadness.
Our young people are emotionally numb and don’t have the space to navigate their emotions.
Losing our loved ones will eventually happen to us all. One of the many ways we learn to deal with loss and experience grief in life is through our social and religious rituals. These rituals can bring comfort and are a way to share the experience of loss as a community. Now imagine learning these lessons during the time of COVID-19.
Social and religious rituals are no longer part of the fiber of our life. Young people are not able to see relatives while they struggle with this illness, or say goodbye when they pass away. There are no formal gatherings to celebrate their loved one’s lives and no extended family support to bring comfort. As the deaths due to COVID-19 continue to increase, we have to deal with a new way of experiencing loss. One that is empty and leaves a void.
Our young people are numb and searching for which emotions they should truly feel. It is not surprising that when you hear young people speak of loss during this time, they sound matter-of- fact and absent of transparent emotion.
This experience will impact their emotional and mental health for years to come. Now more than ever the power of relationships matter and can become a transformative source of comfort.
What can we do?
How can young people manage their new normal and find emotional and social peace during this unprecedented time?
They need to share and we need to actively listen. Being heard and feeling supported is key. Although young people seek the approval and love of their parents, they listen when the right messenger is advising and guiding them. Many times, it is a person they admire or feel is connected to their experiences. Having a favorite auntie, trusted teacher, a peer just a bit older than they are, or a mentor can influence how they see and react to the world around them.
Research shows that having additional caring adults, beyond their loving parent or care takers, can have a myriad of social and emotional benefits, including improved self-regulation, guidance around academic issues and future plans, and performance-based feedback.
Infusing healthy relationships that extend beyond their immediate family can allow young people to open up, explore the world and express themselves. Let’s create safe places where they can be honest with no fear of judgment.
Mentoring is Key at this time
During this unprecedented time, our team of mentors and program coordinators have become the trusted adults that our youth can confide in. They are paying extra special attention to our young people and their emotional well-being. They have stepped up because they understand that our overstressed and worried parents and guardians may not have the strength to manage their current realities while navigating their children’s emotions in a meaningful way.
It’s the program leader hosting Friday night pizza parties via zoom in Schenectady. It’s the mentoring program coordinator, in one of the poorest communities in the Bronx, distributing hot spots to his mentees so they can join google classroom sessions. These mentors make a difference in small and big ways. They don’t expect recognition or applause. They just stay focused on their life’s work; helping our young people.
They are the reason we know many of our kids will be OK!
About the author:
Brenda Jimenez, CEO of MENTOR New York, is committed to women’s and children’s issues leading her to work in nonprofit realm for organizations including United Way of Essex and West Hudson, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girl Scouts of the USA and MENTOR New York.