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You Are Here: Supporting Young People in Stressful Times

It is quite possible that historians will mark this as one of the most volatile and consequential periods in the modern age. The pandemic, political divisiveness, international conflict, civil unrest, economic instability, and more—it has all taken a toll on our mental health. This is reflected in rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental health challenges, as well as a collective sense of fatigue and burnout.

While everyone has felt the toll of the past couple of years, our nation’s young people have been most affected. Worry about the health and well-being of loved ones, coupled with disrupted schedules and developmental phases, characterize the past; looking ahead, a sense of uncertainty grows with daily news reports. Unlike adults, however, youth lack the life experience and perspective that can help navigate these challenges.  

And yet, we are all being asked to dig deeper, find and increase personal resilience, and keep movingeven when many of us simply want to press pause for a good long while. 

How do we meet the current moment? More importantly, how do we help our youth meet the current moment? 

Both science and faith suggest that the best way to deal with uncertainty is to stay as much in the present moment as possible. Just be here, now. That’s much easier said than done, though, right? It takes practice to keep one’s mind and emotions from straying into stressful streams and scary narratives. That’s especially true when there are realistic but unmanageable sources for our worries and fears, and we are reminded of them constantly. 

Nevertheless, we must do everything we can to help our young people be steady, find opportunities for growth amid their challenges, and be fully present in the moment.  

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Validate their dissonance. 

Although young people are very informed about the state of the world around them, they often have their fears downplayed by individuals and systems. For example, today’s teens and young adults have grown up learning about climate change, but they might know adults who dismiss it outright or minimize the threat it poses to the planet. This can create dissonance. And it is exacerbated when an entire system stands behind it: For example, schools typically imply that the past is a reliable indicator of the future; they focus vocational preparation on what has been true historically, rather than assessing new information and looking ahead. This is somewhat understandable; after all, how can we reliably prepare young people for a future that we can’t even imagine? What can we teach them, except that we know to be true or useful based on past experience? But when this doesn’t align with what young people are observing or experiencing, it might lead them to doubt themselves, their feelings, and the adults around them. 

The good news is that a little validation can go a long way. We can acknowledge, with humility, that we know the tools of the past might not apply to the future. It’s OK to say that many of us⁠—as adults⁠—share confusion and uncertainty. However, we must also convey that we are committed to staying present with them in this time of uncertainty. While we cannot (and should not) assure them that the future looks rosy, we can commit to being candid with, and connected to, them.

2. Model being here. 

The most powerful way for adults to ensure that their advice resonates with young people is to model it. It might seem difficult to demonstrate what it looks like to be actively present, since we have all experienced significant stressors recently and might be grappling with uncertainties about the future. There are, however, more resources available than ever for those who wish to learn. So if you don’t already know how to stay fully engaged in the moment, consider taking up meditation, practicing mindfulness, exploring various focus training methods, experimenting with gratitude practices, etc. You can do this on your own or with the young people in your life; you don’t have to master it and then model it, you can do it together!

3. Be here together

Humans are innately social creatures. Whenever things feel scary, we tend to huddle together and will instinctively look to one another for support. Given the instability in the world today, and how easy it is to access information from anywhere in the world in real time, it’s fair to assume that most teens and young adults are quite aware of these realities. It’s important to acknowledge this and bring them into the conversation. Most importantly, we must help youth actively learn how to manage anxiety, depression, stress, and other challenging emotions. 

Fortunately, there are tools you can share with them that help: journaling, getting exercise, resting, or simply disconnecting from the internet for a while. It is also important to let the young people in your life know that they don’t need to address challenging emotions on their own. Invite them to share thoughts and worries, express their emotions, and contribute their ideas⁠ for improving the world—their world—or simply making it feel a little more affirming and less overwhelming. They can do this with you, another trusted adult, or a friend. Inviting a small group (such as a family or school group) to be in the same moment, openly, together, can also be a powerful tool for coping with difficult feelings.

Although we may not be able to take away the uncertainty and fear that comes with living in radically transformative times, we can take a few moments to appreciate what it means to simply be here, in this moment, with ourselves and with each other. 

Find more resources with the theme of “You Are Here” as part of JED’s back-to-school guide for 2022.

Janis Whitlock, Ph.D., M.P.H., JED senior advisor, has worked in the area of adolescent and young adult mental health, resilience, and wellbeing for over 30 years. She is dedicated to bridging science, practice, and lived experience wisdom in ways that inform, enhance and support the human capacity to thrive. She has experience as a frontline provider and program developer and, for the past two decades, as a researcher, educator, author, and public speaker in these and related areas. As the founder and director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and the co-founder of the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury, she has deep expertise in areas of self-injury and related mental health challenges, including suicide, depression, and anxiety. She has also studied and written about connectedness, resilience, the role of social media in mental health and prevention, and sexual health.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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