What to Teach Teenagers In Times of Great Disappointment

This article was previously written and published with the News-Herald May 2020.

I appreciate the freedom to write about any topic I choose, it occasionally challenges me though, because I’m the type of person who prefers just a few choices to pick from. If you ask me where I’d like to vacation, we might be here a while. Likewise, if I plan to paint a room in my home, I’ll need some time. However, if you ask me what I want for dinner, I’ll quickly respond “pasta or seafood”. I’m usually an incredibly decisive person, but not when there are too many options…then the world need not be my oyster. This is one of those times, like in March when I was trying to land on what to share for April. With COVID-19 in the air, there’s just too many things swirling around in my head that I want to write about.

I’ve been listening to parents though, and now I know what to focus on. There’s a whole generation out there right now who are in a ‘milestone’ year. 2020 was supposed to be their time. They were getting their driver’s permit or license; they were excited for prom and to graduate from high school, or finally start or end college. Maybe, like many of my fellow military parents, their child exhausted themselves through 3-6 months of the hardest work they’ve ever done, making the biggest sacrifice they’ve ever made, only to have graduation closed to the public, they won’t get to see their parents. I’ve seen a lot of people really upset about these issues, and my heart goes out to them.

“Amber, your kids aren’t dealing with this, so how do you know how these kids feel? It’s never happened to you!” Great point. You’re right, didn’t happen to me, and it’s not the same. My oldest, a senior, wasn’t set to graduate college this year anyway, so she’s probably just hanging out doing the same. My middle was lucky, she graduated her military programs down south just under the wire; I attended her graduation and we drove home together just a short time before all this happened. My son is in high school, but he’s only a sophomore. 1-2 hours of at home schooling, some self-care and a few chores, then he’s ‘livin’ the dream’ in his room with his X-Box. So, sure, I guess I can’t say we can relate personally to the major disappointments some families are facing, but we have plenty of friends who can. If any of the girls in senior year are like my daughter, the dress was picked out three months ago, among other things. If the boys are anything like mine, they can’t wait to get the hell out of school and move out of Mom’s house. For my son, he now he has a lot of down time from sports which he needed (so there’s a positive). Afterprom groups had funds raised, students were set to go on field trips or participate in competitions, teachers had plans…literally…and they’re all for not. For some, it’s a mess.

I planned on attending a wedding in June. I’d already decided rent a gown, it was gorgeous! I couldn’t wait, I’d never been to a black-tie wedding, and the bride is a very special woman who I was so excited for. She waited a long time to make this decision to settle down and it meant a lot to me in my heart. She has since canceled her wedding because of the unknowns. It’s sad. But I was thinking, ‘Thank goodness I hadn’t pulled the trigger on that dress’. I was going to wait two weeks when I thought I’d have the money to reserve it…I never got the chance. I don’t think they refund money, so it’s best I never did. A lot of negatives, but another positive to focus on. My mate and I had tickets to see the orchestra but two days before the event they closed down. My daughter put in a request to come home from the base for a visit that same weekend and then they put a Stop Movement order out. Our annual birthday vacation in July, our annual family camping trip in August which is now in limbo. It’s happening to all of us. It’s not just the seniors, freshman, 15 ½ or 16 year olds, it’s not just the new soldiers or the ones waiting in limbo to go to training, or military families sitting in hotel rooms waiting to move in or out of the country. It’s everyone and it’s everywhere. Not just our city, state or country. It’s a worldwide crisis which is altering all of our lives. I read an article the other day about a man who was the sole passenger on a Southwest flight (he was traveling to his mother’s memorial service). This is unprecedented all right. It’s like a sci-fi movie, or maybe a Twilight Zone episode, if you remember those. It’s surreal, but it’s really happening…and it is what it is.

I certainly don’t want to be a Debbie Downer; I feel for these kids. But it’s not just them. This year all of our plans have come to a screeching halt. And reality is that the dust hasn’t settled yet, so clearly, we still have no idea what tomorrow will bring, never mind this month or the rest of the year. It sucks. I get it. I’ve been let down before too. I’ve been robbed of options and dreams, special celebrations and job opportunities that were sometimes out of my control. My mother ditched me twice; once when I was 8 and again when I was 32. I’m pretty sure until I was an adult I never actually had a birthday ‘party’. At 16, I was told by my own dad that I couldn’t attend my dream college or have my dream job. I got kicked out of the college I didn’t want to attend due to financial aid falling through on his end. I’ve been plagued with muscular issues for 25+ years after a car accident I didn’t cause. I’ve lost two grandparents, my mother-in-law, a cousin, and one close friend (all way too soon and unexpectedly). I’ve been laid off and/or turned away from jobs I needed or wanted about a dozen+ times in my life. I’ve had my fair share of it but I’m not angry or bitter. If I was, I think I’d be a very unhappy soul right now. There are positives to everything I’ve lived through.

While we might never have lived through a pandemic in our lifetime, we have all absolutely faced disappointments, haven’t we? We’ve all experienced being defeated at some time or another, watched plans get trashed, hopes dashed or life just fall apart. It’s sad and disappointing, yes. But, it’s not what happens to us, it’s how we react to it. We can focus on the positive, find some creative solutions and help others. Or we could stay miserable and be resentful.

No matter what age we are we it’s important when we are suffering to also take a look around us and realize there are people who have it worse. What about the homeless? What about those serving in hospitals around the globe at this exact minute and cannot go to sleep and cannot be home with their families until this is all over? What about the teenagers in those families? What about the ones who have lost their own lives or loved ones or who are sick right now? Think of those who are dying but cannot have their loved ones at their bedside holding their hand on their way out of this world…that is a reality for many right now. What about those who lived in New York City during 9/11, owned businesses and lost them during the financial crash that came after and rebuilt and now this? There are people who have lost children (born or unborn), lost spouses due to war, illnesses or accidents, experienced terrorist attacks or random acts of violence. Some people have lost homes due to financial hardships, fire or natural disasters. There have been couples who planned to have a few children, only to have none. Ever. And adoption wasn’t an option due to finances. There are athletes who planned since high school that their entire life was based on a sports career, but suddenly after one game and one injury in the big leagues found themselves in a hospital bed with the prognosis that they’ll never walk again (never mind play sports again). There are babies who don’t know any better and who are born missing a limb or other types of functions which don’t operate like you are I, it seems normal to them, then one day they realize they have a handicap when compared to other children their age. Talk about obstacles. But, what they choose to do with their fate is up to them, just as what we do with this hardship is the same.

Look, I know this is tough and recognize it’s hard for these teens and young adults waiting their whole life it seems for this year, but this is exactly the time to ask them not to not think about just themselves right now. For some teenagers and young adults this will be an extremely difficult task. We all want what we deserve when we’ve worked hard for it, no matter how old we are. It feels like we were deprived of the reward and it’s okay to feel this way. However, like I’ve been saying for a month now to disappointed military mamas everywhere “your soldier still earned it, they are STILL a brand-new U.S. Army ‘fill in the blank career’! They did make it! They did get through the gas chamber, sleepless nights, bunking with 60 others and rucking at 4 am for hours with incredibly heavy packs on their backs in the rain or sweltering heat with barely any sleep. They DID make it damnit, and they DID earn it, they just aren’t standing in a group in front of you. That one ceremonious moment does not take away the big picture…what they did to get there and where they’re going with it.

Yes, it’s sad not to have the celebration, but we MUST put things into perspective; it’s a 15 minute to 1 hour time frame of their lives. What they do with the rest of their lives will be what truly matters, and their impact will be what matters more than that walk across the front of the room (where most toss the gown in the trash, lose their tassel and bury their yearbook in a box of all those ‘high school things’).

If we can get through this, they have the rest of their lives to celebrate, and so do we. I remember being a teenager and that’s not how most teens think. But when I was a teenager, it was precisely the time my father asked me to think of others. The fact that a student doesn’t walk across a stage or stand in front of a crowd or dance on a dancefloor with their friends this month is not only what matters, what also matters is things that are bigger than what we make a fuss about that’s right in front of us. Yes, we had expectations, but right now, we don’t have that luxury. Not even one of us does. So, we must regroup. Rethink. This is about our attitude. Expectations have just been exchanged for reality. We are in a pandemic. Now, like many times, there’s a potential to be the difference in the face of adversity; we can still make memories, just differently. (The high school on my daughter’s base just posted their plans for digital graduation and videos today…there’s ways to work through this.)

If we’ve always had it easy, then let’s face it, it’s pretty difficult to deal with disappointment. And admit it, a lot of our kids have had it as easy as we have made it for them. If you’re a parent today, most of us think everything is our job, especially comforting or omitting discomfort when it comes to our kids. For many parents it’s hard to grasp when we cannot fix something. But it’s not always our job you know. But, we aren’t used to that. Truth is, we can’t own it all…and it doesn’t teach our kids to be strong anyway.

So, what can you do? You can you reach your teen right where they are. They might be reeling at the most recent reality and pretty reluctant to accept it. You can start by listening and then validating their feelings. As my friend used to tell me way back when if things didn’t go well for me, “It’s okay, you can have your pity party, just don’t stay there”. Tell your child that it’s definitely okay to be pissed off and disappointed. Tell them you ARE proud of them, they DID do it. Hug them because you can. Then, try to talk with them. Take the time to help them realize that this is (gulp) just the first of many major disappointments in their lives. It’s going to happen. You know it and I know it. We have spent years making them happy and helping them avoid the ultimate letdowns in life…but we (and they) can’t control everything. All we have to do is look around to know that life isn’t always a bowl of cherries. We can be there for them, meet them in their sadness, but we can’t stay there… Recap. Keys to helping your teen during this: listen, offer empathy, engage in discussion, opt for gratitude and solution oriented thinking.

I’m sure almost all of our teenagers have heard from a Holocaust survivor. Most have also been introduced to The Diary of Anne Frank. Has anyone heard our Ohio Department of Health Director’s life story? Survivors. They dealt with the worst that life was giving them and stood up in the face of it. They stayed strong and they did it so they could live and help others. Optimism, leadership. Help your kids cope and work through this. Resiliency is of great value in life when there are a bunch of variables and many of which we can’t control. Do your best to balance your aching heart with some loving guidance. Help them by asking them how else they can view this situation. How can you? Are there any blessings or gratitude that can be found today? How can they be a part of the solution to the problem? Discuss what issues they might take a stand on, and in the future; could they use this to become an advocate on one? Does anything having to do with this situation align with their studies and/or career choices? It’s what we make of it. We must be strong to survive, that’s what my disappointments taught me. If we aren’t strong, we won’t survive. And neither will they.

Maybe you can start with the Serenity Prayer. It’s helped me in my life, beginning as a teen: “God (insert or omit what you want here), grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Share this with your kids if you haven’t already. It’s like a positive mantra to help let go of what’s out of our control, and it’s helped me significantly over the years. Being constantly overwhelmed and dismayed about things that are happening lately that are out of our control can quickly turn into feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and eventually depression. We don’t want that for our teens or ourselves. Keep up the good work Mom or Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, all families, and those who are working hard to lead today’s children and help us stay healthy. Everyone keep sticking together, we’ll get through this better and stronger.

This column is dedicated to a New Jersey Holocaust survivor who recently died after complications of the Coronavirus. Margit Buchhalter Feldman was an educator, author and advocate to students and her community. She would have been 91 on June 12th…so would have Anne Frank. Stay well and stay safe. If you’d like to read more common sense parenting and life perspectives visit us at: www.FamilyMatterswithAmber.org.

Amber Chapman

Family writer sharing parenting stories and tips learned by common sense and trial and error. www.familymatterswithamber.blogspot.com

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Volume 11, Issue 6, Posted 11:49 AM, 06.07.2020