Helping Your High School Senior Through COVID-19

Prom. Graduation. College visits. High school seniors are missing out on a lot due to COVID-19. Here, we offer expert advice to help them cope.

Woman hugging crying teen

The day Anya Ailsworth’s school announced it was closing, it was also the opening night for a one-act, student-directed play in which she was supposed to be on stage doing what she loves most.

A vocal performance major when she heads to college this fall, she and her mom, Brady O’Mary, mourn that loss and worry about the cancellation of her upcoming choir concerts, father-daughter dance, talent show, prom, pitch night for her entrepreneurship class and even graduation.

“It was just a flood of the possibility of all these things being canceled and I remember looking at her and I just didn’t know what to say,” O’Mary says.

O’Mary is among the many anxious parents of high school seniors waiting for the other shoe to drop on the seniors, who were born in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s not only the loss of the human connection and the feedback that they get from their teachers and their peers, and the loss of the experience, but it is the loss of the memories because they won’t have them,” she says.

We turned to a few experts to get some advice for parents and their seniors who are finding their plans for senior year totally turned upside down.

College concerns

For many students, this is a critical time to make their final decision on their college by the May 1 deadline (some schools have pushed back that decision deadline so make sure to check).

In fact, many families planned their final round of college visits over Spring Break to do it. Those visits, as well as admitted student days and other events, were all canceled.

The good news, says Patrick O’Connor, a Detroit-based college counselor and author of College is Yours 2.0: Preparing, Applying, and Paying for Colleges Perfect for You, is that many colleges already have virtual tours online perfected over the years for students who couldn’t get to campus under normal circumstances.

He suggests families look for those tours, as well as for social media groups of admitted students to get to know future classmates. In fact, he says, students might even get to know classmates better through social media than if they were actually on campus.

Financial aid is another big concern. With the huge stock market fluctuations, parents might be worried about their college investments, he says. If the coronavirus has changed anything for families, such as a layoff or big losses on investments, O’Connor says to immediately call the financial aid office.

“These are the folks that want to do everything they can ethically and legally to have you come to college,” he says. “… Financial aid will do everything in their power to make sure it’s a good, affordable investment for you.”

He says any decreases in financial aid packages would be the last resort for colleges “simply because their interest is to bring a strong diverse class to campus and they know that the best way to do that is to support them as much as possible.”

He also says if circumstances have changed for families, it is not too late to begin the college search again. Many colleges actively look for students throughout the summer months, he says.

Students also can consider a delayed start to college; the admissions office can help with those discussions, O’Connor says.

To students, he has this advice: “We are all in this together. While this takes away some opportunities for community with some, it creates new opportunities for community with others. That’s probably going to be centered more on family than friends as we hunker down for the next few weeks. This is an opportunity to create some very important moments with people you will not be with much anymore. As a senior, you are leaving and heading off to college. This is as good as a chance as always to create good moments with your family and build on that foundation before you head out.”

Memories and mental health

Parents are sharing through social media theirs and their seniors’ sadness over possible loss of moments they’ve looked forward to for four years.

O’Mary assured her daughter it’s OK to feel everything she’s feeling and that together, students and parents will figure out the path ahead.

“It’s your choice and it’s your reality. I have no doubt these kids will do great things. … They will be OK,” O’Mary says. “… I’m hoping our education system will shift a little bit more to be about the journey and the experience as opposed to the grade or the award, because they will, right or wrong, have to figure out what that journey looks like because it’s very different from what they thought it was going to be.”

“Good will come out of this. That’s theirs to write. It’s their story,” O’Mary says.

What O’Mary is doing with her daughter is just what the experts suggest all parents do.

“Let them feel the feelings they have. It is a legitimate loss. It’s OK for them to feel these feelings and to express them,” says Aileen Kelleher, a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago.

Also, have faith in their ability to create new milestones and memories; capturing this moment is its own milestone, she says.

For parents struggling with loss of memory-making moments, Kelleher recommends feeling the loss. “Don’t feel like you must put on a happy face,” she says. How you react models for your kids how to grieve.

Veronica Ursetto of Integrative Perspectives Counseling, suggests working with your senior to see if they have interest in brainstorming ways to include the most important people in a virtual private graduation ceremony and even talk virtually with their peers to create a makeup prom.

“Often, teenagers are full of ideas about how to get what they want, they just need an adult to support them,” she says.

As many parents know, keeping a teen cooped up in the house is so much different than for a toddler. Kelleher suggests parents give teens input into what their schedule looks like, while remembering they still need help in creating a consistent routine and to help keep their spirits up.

In that schedule, make sure they build in a lot of movement throughout the day as well as FaceTime and calls with friends, she says.

Warning signs

“It’s really normal for your teen to experience feelings of anger, sadness and worry,” Ursetto says.

“We are going through a shared loss as a community, it’s important to use our strengths to build each other up and support our teens through using this time to explore new interests, connect with family and make their own meaning,” she says. “If you are having a hard time with this transition, imagine your teen with limited life experience trying to understand why life changes one day.”

Kelleher suggests parents keep their eyes out if their teen’s behavior starts getting destructive. Other warning signs include self-harm, rough behavior, hoarding, a loss of cheerfulness and an inability to function as they normally would, she says.

If they are unable to complete their e-learning work or attend dinners with the family, it could be time to reach out for help, she says. Many therapists are offering teletherapy during the pandemic.

One thing to remember, Kelleher says, is that seeking a therapist is nothing to be ashamed of as your child and your family navigates all of these changes.

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