How to Help High School Seniors Cope With Milestones Missed Due to COVID-19

June 23, 2020 Updated: June 23, 2020

Change is stressful for all of us. It’s, therefore, no surprise to find that, in general, people are finding it difficult to cope with the COVID-19 restrictions. None of us knows exactly how to cope with the fallout from this unprecedented situation.

While adults find this forced confinement difficult, young adults who were about to embark on a new chapter in their lives are finding the disruption in normal life events particularly stressful.

Not only are they missing things such as proms or a graduation ceremony, but they’re also missing other potentially life-altering events: the track and field championship for which they’d worked hard all year just so they could compete; the conservatory exam to evaluate just how much they’d improved their musical skills; or the summer job that would help them earn money and build a resume for future employment.

Developmental Milestones

And now, the worst cut of all, in many cases, no in-person fall classes at college or university. This means no formal initiation into the freshman class of 2020 for students.

It means not having to decide what personal mementos to bring as you leave home or no tearful goodbye with parents. For those who planned to still live at home, it means not carefully packing one’s knapsack for the first day at campus orientation and no bonding with classmates. Now, this next chapter will most likely happen in their current bedroom, virtually.

These developmental milestones help young adults mark their progress as they transition from child to adult, and yet now, these important events have all been shelved—at least until the pandemic ends.

Our center runs an online transition program for students with either learning or mental health disabilities who are going to college or university next fall. We are hearing a lot from these students about the stress that the current closures and social distancing are causing them. In my role as clinical director of the Regional Assessment and Resource Center at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, I hear on a daily basis how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of high school seniors.

Not What They Signed Up for

This disruption has meant not only that they have to change the way they learn in high school, but also that they have to take more personal responsibility for engaging in learning.

This was not what they signed up for, and they find that their teachers are (in general) less adept at managing the online learning environment than they are. These students are learning that it’s difficult to change from an in-person to an online learning environment. From some of their parents, we are also hearing that pressuring their children to do their assigned virtual homework is causing friction in their parent-child relationships.

A number of the high school students with whom we work also worry that the change to online learning may mean that they miss out on some of the key foundational knowledge needed to help them succeed. They are, quite rightly, concerned that they won’t have the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully deal with first-year curricula.

What Parents and Loved Ones Can Do

So, what can parents and significant others in the lives of these young adults do right now to help high school seniors cope?

1. Don’t jump in to fix things. Agree and appreciate that this is a stressful time for them, but don’t jump in and try to fix things. Allow them to have their feelings and allow them to figure out how to cope with those feelings. Ask them: “What would you like me to do to help you right now?” Offer suggestions if they ask. Give the message that you have faith that they’ll find a way to cope.

2. Help youth find positive coping strategies to manage disappointment. In life, we all have to deal with loss and disappointment, and the more we can help young adults learn positive coping skills at these times the better prepared they will be to deal with such negative situations in the future. Learning skills like mindfulness meditation or deep breathing and relaxation can help, as can learning how to create a worry list to contain anxiety and worry.

3. Honor their achievements, even if it is virtually. Help them identify what they wanted most or wish could have happened these past few months. How can they honor what they’ve achieved? Can they or family find ways to celebrate now? Plan ahead for a big party once social distancing is over? Consider arranging a videoconferencing meeting with important members of their social circle and have speeches. Have everyone tell the young adult how proud they are of their achievements and reinforce for them what being part of their lives means to that particular individual.

4. See the current pandemic challenges as an opportunity to build resiliency. Post-secondary counseling centers in North America have seen an increase in student mental health problems partly due to a lack of resiliency, because many of these students haven’t previously dealt with disappointment or even minor stressful events.

The COVID crisis has the potential to act as a yardstick for students. Once they get through this, they’ll feel better able to cope with other future stressful situations.

5. Focus on the positive. Having to learn to manage your own time, learn from online content and set your own schedule—these are all valuable transition skills that students need, whether going from high school to post-secondary education or eventually to a job. There are lots of good resources about how to cope with the demands of online learning or a lack of structure in learning environments, and many library websites have shared this type of content.

6. Limit media consumption. Young adults spend much of their time online and this is a good way to keep in touch; but too much is not good, especially if some of those interactions have the potential to be negative or increase anxiety. Studies have shown a strong link between time spent online and negative mood symptoms.

One of the biggest challenges we hear about from post-secondary students we see at our center is students with attention problems wondering: How can I limit my use of electronics? This might be the time to investigate installing apps that limit the amount of time you can get online.

Remember, teens and young adults, in general, can learn to become quite resilient if left to figure things out on their own and given positive support. Send the message that you have faith they’ll succeed, not that you’re waiting to rescue them when they fall apart.

 is an associate professor of psychology and clinical director of the Regional Assessment and Resource Center at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. This article was first published on The Conversation.