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Senior Year Is In Disarray. Here's How To Help Teens And Young Adults Who Feel Lost

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A vignette from last year's UCLA graduation ceremony. (Robyn Beck /AFP via Getty Images
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For many young people, sheltering at home means missing milestones and public recognition of their achievements. This is especially true for seniors graduating from high school and college.

But there are ways to help them cope. Here are a few things parents can try.

ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR FEELINGS

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Psychologist Lynn Bufka, spokesperson for the American Psychological Association, says an important way for parents to help high school and college students is to simply acknowledge their feelings — the sadness and disappointment they feel about the loss of prom, celebrations and graduation.

Parents should recognize that for many young people:

"This is the biggest thing they've experienced in their lives. They're too young to remember 9-11. Collectively as a generation, this is a really big experience for them."

When you're young, understanding that life is just not as predictable as they might have thought can be scary, she says. Parents can help by letting them talk about it.

ENCOURAGE THEM TO STAY CONNECTED

Young people need to establish a cushion of social connection they can lean on through these times.

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Bufka says staying socially connected, even virtually, can be helpful. In fact she prefers to describe distance precautions as "physical distancing," not social distancing. "It's important to maintain social connection and intimacy even if this is not in person," she says.

And, she encourages young people to take advantage of the many ways to socially connect, with all kinds of shared online activities, including group chats, dinners, TV and even movie watching.

SHIFT FOCUS TO WHAT THEY CAN CONTROL

Bufka recommends talking to your teen or college-aged child about the things they do have some control over

Graduation may be postponed or cancelled, but young people can plan special events for after the pandemic has ended. Perhaps a trip with best friends or a post-graduation party. Focus on the positive events that can occur at the end of this crisis. Envision how you can celebrate and maybe even start making plans now.

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EMPHASIZE THE GREATER GOOD

It can help to point out to young people that they are making sacrifices right now not just for their own health and safety, but for the greater good. She points to a study that looked at previous infectious disease crises, including the 2003 SARS and 2014 Ebola outbreaks. People are able to cope better, she says, when they "think about the altruistic reason they're doing this."

Changes in everyday life to limit the spread of disease may be hard, Bufka says, but "we're in it together and we're in it to benefit the larger community and to have a good impact on overall health and well-being."

In the end, she says once young people get through this crisis, they will realize they can handle tough situations and get to the other side.

"It will make us stronger — sometimes we surprise ourselves."

Copyright 2020 NPR. This article is excerpted from a longer piece that originally appeared on NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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