Why We Need To Stop Calling This 'The Lost Year'

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 
My Teens Want To Know When Life Will Be Normal Again, And I Don't Know What To Tell Them

In any conversation about kids and the pandemic, it takes a hot minute before someone starts talking about the “lost year”. Folks talk about how kids are falling behind. How they’ve missed out on important milestones. How they’ve lost opportunities to socialize.

Every time I hear this phrase – “the lost year” – I cringe.

Sure, this year has been hard. Brutally hard. Undoubtedly, many of us have experienced real loss – loss of life, loss of income, loss of health – but these are not the losses parents are typically referring to when they talk about the lost year. No, they are talking about a year of lost academic development, of lost socialization, of lost friendships.

And when it comes to these things, I really just want to beg parents to stop. Take a step back and reconsider how they are thinking about – and talking about – the past year.

When the world first shut down a year ago, one of my biggest fears (in addition to keeping my family healthy) was how social isolation would impact my 5th and 8th graders. After all, they were in midst of – or about to start – middle school. That all-important and often angst-ridden period of adolescence.

“Early adolescence — the middle school years, in the United States — is considered a second critical period, a time of brain changes so rapid and far-reaching that they rival the plasticity and growth that take place in the much more popularly recognized newborn to 3-year-old phase,” Judith Warner, the author of “And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School,” wrote in the New York Times.

Up until the pandemic, my teen and pre-teen were both moving along a pretty typical path of adolescent development. They had strong friendships, managed the demands of school reasonably well, and navigating their expanding independence. As experts have indicated, independent relationships are crucial during the teen years. But these healthy and essential relationships and interactions were erased – or severely hindered – from their lives due to remote learning and social isolation. They weren’t able to chat with their classmates while they work through a chemistry experiment. They couldn’t tell jokes (most of which are somewhat inappropriate) while eating a sandwich at the lunch table. They couldn’t trash talk each other over a friendly basketball game at the park down the street.

Sure, they were still able to FaceTime and text and hang out in an Xbox game. But it wasn’t the same. Not only were these interactions virtual, but they weren’t all that independent either. We parents were in the room next door, after all.

It’s been hardest on middle schoolers,” Phyllis Fagell – a therapist, school counselor and the author of the book “Middle School Matters” – told the New York Times. “It is their job to pull away from parents, to use these years to really focus on figuring out where they are in the pecking order, figuring out what they need from a friend, what they can give to a friend. And all of that hard work that has to happen in these years was just put on hold.”

We parents have worried. We’ve fretted. We’ve struggled with how to guide our middle schoolers through this phase of massive development in a way that protects their physical, emotional, and mental health. As Warner wrote in the Times, we parents of middle schoolers have one thing in common: “the pressing fear that their children, at a vital inflection point in their academic and social lives, have tripped over some key developmental milestones and may never quite find their footing again.”

But while we might commiserate over our worries, we aren’t justified is complaining about it – especially in front of our kids. In fact, experts say our worries are seriously overblown.

Bottom line: most of our kids will be fine.

All that rapid development is precisely the reason why they’ll be okay. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and the author of “Age of Opportunity,” an influential book on teen brain science, told the New York Times, that middle schoolers’ “critical period” of increased brain flexibility, instability, and plasticity means they are hypersensitive and ultra-vulnerable — but also that they’re ripe for adaptability and resilience.

While remote learning and social distancing might be the opposite of what middle schoolers want and need, Warner writes, once we get a fuller picture we can see that two seemingly contradictory truths might coexist – the past year has been awful, and most middle schoolers will be fine.

Key word: most. While most middle schoolers will be fine, for some teens, the stress and chaos of the past year has been mentally and emotionally overwhelming. Child psychiatrists worry that the pandemic has increased teen suicide risks, and more teens are reporting feelings of anxiety and depression. If you notice that your middle schooler is struggling, don’t delay. Take action. Call your kids’ school. Schedule an appointment with a therapist. Talk with your teen or pre-teen about what they’re feeling. Often.

But it is with this background generality – the past year has been awful, and most middle schoolers will be fine – that parents might be unintentionally making it harder for their kids to be fine.

According to the New York Times, Data shows that many kids think their parents are unhappy with them, with their constant attention on the ways their kids are falling behind acting as evidence to back up these suspicions. Data also shows that parents’ moods are among the strongest predictors of depression and anxiety in teens. No pressure, amiright?

“We have to start considering how we are going to frame this period as we emerge from it,” said Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, told the New York Times. “We need to focus not just on hardship and tragedy. We need to praise them for their flexibility and resilience and ability to change.”

So what can parents of middle schoolers do to reframe and lay the groundwork for their middle schoolers to emerge from the pandemic year relatively unscathed.

First, stop talking about all the things our kids “lost” over the past year.

Sure, there we have missed out on a lot of things – sports teams, time with friends, graduations, and school dances. Vent all you want with your partner or your bestie, but zip it when you’re around your kids. If they talk to complain to you about the things they’ve “lost,” you can be empathetic and acknowledge their feelings while gently redirecting to the things they may have gained over the past time. Lunch-time movies. Later bedtimes. Relaxed screen time rules. Speaking of which…

Parents should also calm down a bit when it comes to screen time.

According to Dr. Steinberg, the teens who fared the best during the pandemic were generally those who were able to stay connected to their friends. For many kids, this has meant their parents relaxed their rules around social media and screen time. Social media, texting, and video games have countered some of the effects of isolation. So we can cut our kids and ourselves some slack when it comes to screen time. Would I let my kids play Xbox for 8 hours a day under normal circumstances? No way.

But as Rabiah Harris, a public middle-school science teacher in Washington, told the New York Times, “This is not regular. There’s really nothing regular about it.”

Take it a step further and praise the hell out of your kids.

Not only can we cut our kids some slack, but we can – and should – praise the hell out of them. When I take a step back and look at all the things we’ve asked our kids to deal with in relatively short order, I am seriously in awe of them. They went (or maybe they’re still going) to school in front of a computer for 6-7 hours a day, with no less dedication to the task at hand. They wear masks without hesitation. They’ve mastered new skills like video conferencing on a dime. And most importantly they’ve learned that daily life can become almost unrecognizable from the life they’ve always known, and they can adjust and evolve and maybe even find some happiness in all of it. Honestly, these kids have managed the chaos and turmoil of the past year better than many adults I know. They are an inspiration. And we should tell them that.

Finally, have a little faith.

I said it once and I’ll say it again: this year has been brutally hard. But as they say, this too shall pass. And if the resilience of so many kids is any indication, I’d say the experts are right. The kids will be alright. In fact, maybe they already are alright.

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