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Empowering Adolescents Through Uncertain Times

Aug 31, 2020 11:00AM ● By Carrie Jackson

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Humanities

The uncertainly that has come from the COVID-19 pandemic can be especially challenging for adolescents that have had portions of their lives altered or put on hold during a time of pivotal social growth and personal development. Hannah Dailey, a marriage and family therapist with CORE Chicago, reports that she’s seeing her teenage clients exhibit social isolation, lack of daily structure, loss of extracurricular activities that are beneficial in shaping healthy identity development, anxiety and increased familial conflict with more time spent together under stressful conditions.

Community and structure can play an important role in navigating this time in limbo. “Empowering our teens is vital in order to give them a sense of independence and agency over their circumstances, especially during a time that is so out of anyone’s control,” says Erica Hornthal, a dance movement therapist and founder of Chicago Dance Therapy.

Ashley Hodges, MSW, LCSW, of the Wellington Counseling Group, in Chicago, works with adolescents experiencing crisis. “So much of what teens do revolves around their peers and friendships. At the start of the pandemic, there was anxiety about not knowing when they could see their friends again or go back to school. Now there’s a frustration around not being able to do activities they were looking forward to over the summer, such as camps, sports and festivals.”

Finding a way to still connect is critical. “Accepting that screen contact is real contact is a step that many teens have already taken. Taking classes or sharing a movie across the screens can give a profound sense of connection, even when you’re not physically together,” says Malik Turley, of Hip Circle Empowerment Center, a nonprofit that uses dance, fitness and community to empower women and girls.

Connecting online can help turn the feelings into something cathartic, says Audrey Petty, co-founder of Sojourner Scholars, a program of Illinois Humanities, and editor of High Rise Stories: Voices From Chicago Public Housing. The program works primarily with high-schoolers from the greater South Side of Chicago to promote intellectual growth, community and civic engagement, and had to shift to online seminars for this summer’s intensive, four-week curriculum.

“Everything is knowledge, everything is learning. We’re talking about the things we can do, the things we must do, the things that are possible in this moment and beyond. There are challenges with the transition to online seminars, but there is a real sense of urgency and hunger and desire for students to have and to create this space,” says Petty.

Ozakh Ahmed is the interim program director at Girls, Inc. Chicago, a nonprofit that inspires girls to respond with thoughtful, informed decisions and lead healthy, fulfilling lives. She says that much of their programing has shifted during the quarantine, but there have been some benefits to that. “Great bonds can be made when we are able to come together as a community over a shared emotional event, even if that’s on a Zoom or phone call. I’ve had the opportunity to see my high school students more now than I would have if the meetings were in person. We take the time to really check in, ask how everyone is feeling, and the girls are able to identify others who may be experiencing something similar,” says Ahmed.

With a little creativity, being at home can still provide ample room for growth. “Teens can continue to find fulfillment and meaning in their everyday lives through intentionality and structure, and can continue to build their confidence by actively trying new things,” says Dailey. True Star Foundation is a nonprofit that provides on-the-job training for teenagers to create their own media and takes a hands-on approach to solving problems. Co-founder Na-Tae’ Thompson says that it is imperative for teens to conquer their insecurities and master communication skills. “By developing media platforms, teens learn skills associated with content creation, digital media and marketing, but they also learn the importance of leadership, teamwork, dependability, problem-solving and thinking outside of the box.”

Hodges says that parents have the chance to have a strong and supportive role in how their teens respond to the pandemic, and encourages them to acknowledge what’s going on instead of normalizing it. “This is an important time for parents to ask their kids how they are doing and really listen and validate what they’re feeling. Teens need to hear, ‘Yes, this is challenging. How can I help you?’ They might not have the emotional regulation to articulate their needs right then, but letting them know that their feelings are being heard will help start the conversation.”

These complex emotions that are coming up can manifest in many areas, and Hornthal works with clients to facilitate releasing emotions trapped in the body through movement and dance. She encourages adolescents to practice taking up space and stretching whenever possible. “Teens can take time to center and ground throughout the day by placing their feet on the floor, lifting the body and breathing consciously, which reinforces connection.  If they can connect to themselves, then they can tap into their own power and find their independence,” she says.

COVID-19 will become part of their permanent story for today’s adolescents instead of proms, parties and other rites of passage. “Parents should be conscious of how they are validating their teen’s experience during this time, as well as being vulnerable in sharing their own difficulties during as a means to normalize their teen’s experience and connect to one another,” says Dailey. True Star encourages teens to shift their perspective. “In a time where youth have the ability to control the narrative, to be an example to peers, we implore them to take full advantage.

Photo Courtesy of Illinois Humanities

"It is such an empowerment move to shift a young person’s mindset and to help shape them for adulthood,” says Thompson. Monique Petty-Ashmeade, a freshman at DePaul University, uses social media and other platforms to share with friends at True Star and throughout the community. “Creating my own media gives me confidence and pride. It makes me feel as though my voice matters and that what I have to say is important. I also get to share my thoughts and opinions with people and hopefully, in some way help them out,” she states.

Adolescents are at a unique time in their lives where they are starting to explore their place in the world, and support from peers, family and community is crucial for long-term success. “Our programs help facilitate the process of the students finding the power that is already within them. They are already acting as social scientists, and have the answers to create positive social change,” says Ahmed. With the resources to thrive, not just survive, through a global pandemic, they can come out of this stronger than ever. “Having empowering experiences that show how strong and impactful they can be at a time in their lives when so much is in flux can set teens up for being truly courageous and confident adults,” says Turley.

Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at  CarrieJacksonWrites.com.