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We Need to Talk to Teens About Hope and Meaning

We can look forward to a brighter 2021 but still have a long way to go.

Parents, as we approach the end of 2020, we need to talk to our teenagers about hope.

Teens and their families can look forward to a better year ahead but we still have a long way to go before life will return to any sense of normality. Although all of us have suffered from fear, loss, and psychological isolation due to the pandemic, teens are in a unique developmental position. They are cognitively mature enough to appreciate the ravages of the COVID-19 virus, but they do not have the life experience to take the long view and know that this, too, will pass.

In addition, their education has been disrupted and for students who are impoverished or in struggling school districts, they will have lost over a year of learning. And we know that school provides much more than learning; it allows socializing, mentoring, and access to resources, including the school lunch program. Rehema Ellis of NBC News has covered the emotional toll of virtual learning and you might be brought to tears, as I was, by the stories she shares (NBC Nightly News, December 12).

Still, this is a season of hope in many faith traditions and those who are not formally religious can also see light in this time of darkness. As parents, we need to experience hope before we talk to our teens, or, as usual, they will see right through us.

Fortunately, we have several reasons to be hopeful. The vaccines have arrived and even though it will take many months for all of us to be vaccinated, at least we do not face the unending, rising rates of infection and death. At the same time, we can look forward to a new compassionate and competent administration in Washington that will take the virus, the economic needs of families, and human rights concerns seriously. Finally, we can take comfort in the fact that so many Americans have responded to the needs of others.

The details: Both the Pfizer and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration and have demonstrated efficacy rates of over 95%. We need to vaccinate our front-line health care personnel, essential workers, and the elderly first. But Dr. Anthony Fauci believes that enough vaccinations will be completed by the late summer and early fall so that we will then return to some semblance of normal life by the late fall. Now, the late fall seems like an eternity to many teens but we need to explain that we will see less sickness and deaths and more incremental progress in the very near future. This will reduce fear and create hope and anticipation of better days.

President-Elect Biden has stated that vaccinations and the control of the pandemic will be his top priority. His staff, especially Chief of Staff Ronald Klain, have experience in this area, having dealt with the Ebola crisis. Biden’s nominee for the Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal organization primarily responsible for controlling the spread of infectious diseases including COVID-19, is Dr. Rochelle Walensky, currently serving as the chief of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Walensky has a specific interest in the college-age population. Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris are also pressing for more financial stimulus relief for American families.

Carol Landau
Cape Light, 2020
Source: Carol Landau

Finally, we can take heart in the values, altruism, and dedication of many individuals, in the US and globally. Many families have grown closer during the pandemic; they have shared time, meals, and activities and have strengthened their commitment. This deeper appreciation of the value of family is a rare positive outcome of the pandemic. (I refuse to use the term "silver lining" in this time of so much loss and grief. )

In addition to health care, educational and social service professionals and essential workers who have risked their lives to help others, there are many stories of heroic and altruistic individuals, many of them teens. Whether it is a high school band playing a concert for the elderly in a nursing home, teens who have been organizing food deliveries, or those who advocate wearing masks and social distancing to demonstrate leadership in public health, these teens are showing us what individual efforts can accomplish.

Teens are especially responsive to their peers as role models so we need to share these stories. Service and advocacy can help all of us get through these still challenging times. As we move forward, we can have family conversations about these ways to help others and restore a sense of community. Teens can move away from the age-appropriate self-absorption to altruism based on empathy and commitment to the common good. As Sebastian Junger asks, “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice?” By sacrificing a little, we regain a sense of mastery and shared humanity.

Let’s look to a happier and more meaningful New Year. We are going to make it.