How to Talk to Your Teenagers About the Pandemic
Parents are frustrated with their teens right now because they don’t seem to be taking things seriously enough. Maybe they are shrugging it off because they say the virus won’t affect them, or maybe they just don’t seem to care at all.
Cavalier attitudes, feelings of invincibility — these are typical teenage mindsets. But this isn’t a typical situation. And in fact, their attitude and the way that they are responding is more similar to soldiers than stereotypical teenagers.
They are in denial not because they are selfish or self-centered, but because they have learned denial as a defense mechanism.
A generation desensitized
Imagine being a small child told to huddle under your desk and be very quiet because an evil person is roaming the halls of your school and may come in and kill everyone. Now imagine having that happen every month. These kids have grown up with active shooter drills in their classrooms once or twice a month from the time they were in kindergarten. They are ready for it when it comes, but they have been desensitized.
Desensitization happens out of necessity. I have a friend who is an ER doc, and he says people would be horrified if they heard the jokes the doctors made. Does that make him a bad doctor? No, it makes him a better doctor. In the military, they drill and drill to remove emotion and train the body to act out of habit. This is where we’re at with our teenagers, like it or not.
They’ve been inundated with threats their whole lives. They live in a post-9/11 world. Remember when you used to be able to meet people at the gates when their plane arrived? And movies of someone running to catch their true love right before they got on their plane?
We remember a time before the war on terror. It’s not like the 80s and 90s were all roses, but talking to my 17-year-old daughter yesterday, she remarked that she wished she had grown up in the 90s. I reflected for a moment on the things I was stressed or worried about when I was 17. They just pale in comparison.
A world gone mad
Teenagers make jokes, gallows humor. Tik Tok is full of hilarious videos of kids “not taking things seriously” — but can we expect teenagers to take EVERYTHING seriously when everything is so seriously screwed? They’ve been told that by their late twenties, climate change will be irreversible.
I think as adults, we just don’t believe it. But unlike us, teenagers have accepted that truth. And they are really, really angry about it. But what can they do? Nothing.
Greta Thunberg. Adults love her, champion her. How do teenagers feel about her? I think that most of them see her as a strange anomaly. I believe that they admire her and are thankful for her (maybe), but I don’t think they are inspired. They hear the pain in her voice, see her anger, and know they don’t have the strength to live like that every day.
All my daughter has ever wanted was for her high school years to be like a John Hughes movie (without the sexism and racism, of course). She just wanted to experience normal things, like caring about the prom, and homework stress and pranking teachers. It was around about 8th grade when she realized that just wasn’t going to happen.
She’s already lost three friends to suicide. Suicide rates among teens have jumped 56% in the past ten years. That’s an unfathomable amount. The phrase “ok boomer” is not a typical teenage roll of the eyes. It’s a visceral reaction to the older generation’s lack of understanding.
Teenagers have spent their childhood consuming news that seems like it’s out of a dystopian novel. Race riots, lack of gun control, massive waves of sexual assault, inheriting astronomical debt, a minimum wage that’s anything but minimum, and a planet that is about to collapse under the weight of decades of plunder. We are lucky that “ok boomer” is all that they’re saying to us right now.
Looking to each other for support
Instead, they talk to each other. They have a global network we don’t comprehend. We might hear about news from the other side of the globe, but they watch firsthand accounts in real-time. The first place they go for news is to each other. Teens of different countries have the ability to communicate quickly regardless of borders.
Imagine if Anne Frank had had social media. Imagine if the world had been able to track her story. It’s impossible, it wouldn’t have happened. Social media has broken down the barriers to communication. It’s upended the power structure of propaganda and silencing the masses. For our teens, the masses have always had a voice; that’s their way of life.
The prom is more than just another dance
For those of us who grew up in the 90s, hearing that prom is canceled might not feel that dramatic. I didn’t even go to my prom because it was “lame.” But to our teenagers, it’s symbolic. It’s the snatching away of yet another piece of a “normal” childhood they were told about, but have never gotten to see. The graduating class of 2020? They aren’t going to get to walk across a stage and take their diploma from the principal and throw their hats in the air.
Their reaction to this virus is not that it’s scary or even unfair. It a deep resignation. It’s more of an “of course we don’t get a normal senior year, we haven’t gotten a normal anything.” Their normal is violence and fear. Their normal is a crumbling world. They were raised on the Hunger Games, and the reality of their lives is not that far off.
More hugs, less data
Teenagers today keep up with the news. They are plugged-in to the digital realm and are updated quickly. Granted, sometimes the news they get isn’t accurate, but they’re usually ahead of the curve with information that is good.
So no, your teenagers don’t need more information. Giving them facts and figures about the virus and showing them the spread isn’t going to suddenly make them care.
What they need from us is sympathy, empathy. For this moment in time, we need not to treat them like young adults, but to treat them like children who have had their childhoods taken away.
We need to understand that underneath their apathy is a deep fear of the unknown. They are terrified of the world they are inheriting. They need our reassurance. Even if we aren’t feeling it ourselves, we would give that to our younger children. Teenagers deserve it too.