While news stories focus on high school juniors and seniors losing out on big rites of passage like prom and graduation, it’s easy to underestimate the impact of little changes to your 9th or 10th grader’s new reality. Your child’s daily life has changed midstream through their high school years: this means lots of small heartbreaks and a few larger looming fears.

What will next year look like?

Your 9th grader may suddenly be thinking about all the things they looked forward to next year. How can you play team sports like soccer with social distancing? How fun will yearbook club be if it mostly means emailing classmates to send in pictures rather than shooting photos at dozens of lively school events? Will it still be possible to get a driver’s license?

Your 10th grader may be looking forward to the fever pitch of junior year and wondering what’s going to happen to all their well-laid plans. For lots of students, junior year brings many peaks of intensity: varsity sports, club leadership, college visits, college entrance exams, and the most rigorous year of academics. What will your 10th grader be allowed to do? Will they have to take SATs and ACTs as usual? How will the family’s finances change their prospects of going to college?

How to help your 9th grader or 10th grader cope

Open up a dialogue about next year and tread carefully, but do not tell them a prettified story about the future. Developmental child psychologist Diana Divecha says that by 10th grade, most kids want to know everything. “They have huge hypocrisy detectors and huge BS detectors. They want the real deal.” At the same time, they will still look to you to feel safe. “They want to take adults in their life for granted. So it’s a fine line.”

Divecha suggests having an overall game plan for any difficult discussions. Tell your child, “Even if we don’t know what the future is, we’re going to have an honest conversation. It’s my job as a parent to figure it out and we will keep talking about this as information unfolds.”

Missing friends (and maybe even teachers)

Where younger children may thrive with all the extra family time, adolescents are at a developmental stage where building relationships outside the family is the natural focus of their lives. At this age, your child’s interactions with their friends tend to be far more meaningful than those with their family. (They still love you, but they’re just not that into you.) So though your teen may seem to be doing fine, they’re likely grieving over the loss of daily contact with friends and acquaintances. They also may be missing adults outside the home — those teachers, counselors, coaches, or extended family who can make your child’s day with a joke or word of encouragement.

“This pandemic is robbing teens of one of the primary ingredients they need to maintain their thriving,” says Rich Lerner, professor of psychology and founder of the Center for Youth Development at Tufts University. “Diverse relationships.”

How to help your 9th grader or 10th grader cope

In the olden days a few months ago you may have worried your teen was spending too much time on TikTok or Snapchat. Now, you may actually need to encourage them to spend more time socializing online.

“Now kids are trying to individuate inside the four walls of their family home,” explains Divecha. “And the only way out is online.” Devicha recommends keeping tabs on what kids are doing online and how it balances with your offline family life. “Is it excessive? Is it harmful?” Balance screen time with your own family values and what you are asking from your teen. “We have this structure, ritual, is it an artful balance? Is it meaningful?”

In other words, include teens in planning the family’s daily schedule and responsibilities. Research suggests that children raised during crises who feel a sense of purpose in contributing to their family end up developing high levels of resilience, confidence, and mastery.

Identity interrupted

These are the years high schoolers typically come into their own: they choose classes and sports, get jobs, and take on more responsibility. They may even fall in love. In psychological terms, these activities are all a part of how they’re exploring their identities physically, sexually, socially, vocationally, spiritually, and academically. They’re not just asking questions like: Who am I? How do I fit in? They’re actively experimenting with lots of answers. Getting that news editor position on the school newspaper or being named co-captain of the track team? That’s not kid’s play: it’s a dress rehearsal for adulthood. These experiences imprint themselves powerfully on your teen’s sense of self.

In an era of social distancing, online learning, and the looming possibility of renewed lockdowns, it’s not surprising if your teen feels that their world (which includes everything from their peer relationships to their long-term dreams) are contracting.

How to help your 9th grader or 10th grader cope

Knowing how to help your child manage all these uncertainties is perplexing. “There is a hard uncertainty about the current moment,” admits Divecha. Since we can’t assure them about a future we cannot predict, it’s important to focus on helping them articulate their feelings. What does it feel like to be a soccer player when you can’t practice with your teammates?

Devicha says for all conversations with teens she likes to follow a simple formula. “The first half of any conversation is eliciting their feelings. Ask questions. They have a ton of wisdom inside themselves anyway.” Only then shift to “gentle problem-solving,” by asking questions that guide them toward developing their own solutions.

“What do you think your options are? Who could you call on for more options? What’s the soccer coach thinking about?” she explains. “Help them reveal what’s inside themselves.”

Lerner recommends encouraging kids to develop a sense of agency by getting them to think about how they would address schools reopening. “Ask the kid to think about how to construct what they want this new normal to be. Work collaboratively with them. Suggest they talk about this with friends.”

The kids are not alright

Mid-adolescence is a stage when humans are at particularly high risk for mental health issues. Eating disorders are common, especially among girls. Anxiety and depression rates for teenagers are at an all-time high. And at this stage of brain development, they’re more likely to take dangerous risks (like drunk driving or experimenting with alcohol or drugs).

So how is this new era affecting teen mental health? “We don’t know,” says Lerner. “No two children experience trauma in the same way. No two children have the same family context. We do know that when children are affected by trauma, their brains are bathed in cortisol permanently, and this impairs learning.”

How to help your 9th grader or 10th grader cope

If your child has a history of mental health issues, keep an eye out for a recurrence. It’s also important to watch for behaviors that suggest your once-happy child is struggling emotionally. Is your child sleeping more or less than usual, expressing erratic emotions (or no emotions at all), eating more or less? Do they seem to have a quick trigger or startle response? Don’t wait for the problem to get worse. Contact your child’s doctor or school psychologist to learn about resources and find someone for your child to talk to.

No matter what, there’s one thing that can help heal the damages of a brain surging with cortisol. Oxytocin. Known as the “love hormone,” it’s released when you feel affection or love. So what’s a parent to do?

Let your teens know you care, says Learner. “It never hurts to tell your kids you love them.”

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Updated: May 15, 2020