Comfort in a changing world for young people

By Dr. Michelle Krehbiel, Nebraska Extension 4-H Youth Development

“I don’t like this!”

Children or youth might say this during a heated game, when being asked to correct unwanted behavior or when plans change. Young people who were looking forward to milestones like field days, end of school year celebrations, prom, or graduation, have reason to believe that life can be sad, frustrating, and difficult. How can nurturing adults help young people cope with these emotions and equip them with the skills they need to be caring, connected, and capable adults?

Any loss for a child or youth, such as a failing an exam, death of a pet, changes in family structure, or events from a disaster, can lead to a wide variety of feelings such as disappointment, sadness, loneliness, or anger. These feelings are common reactions to such experiences. Caring adults can do the following to help young people cope:

Acknowledge feelings and allow youth to talk about their feelings and concerns. Let youth know that it is okay to be sad, scared or confused. Identifying and naming a feeling can be very helpful in trying to understand and make meaning of a situation. 

Be a calm and reassuring presence.  Remind youth that over time things will get better. 

Help youth form positive coping skills by setting a healthy example of how to manage feelings like grief, anxiety, fear, or sadness.  Teach young people that exercising, meditation, writing in a journal, engaging in a favorite hobby like art, cooking, gardening or sewing are healthy ways to work through disappointment, loss, and grief.  

Expressing gratitude for things that make life enjoyable is another way teach positive coping skills.

Create an environment where youth can interact with their peers. Using video conferencing, having telephone conversations, or writing letters are ways of connecting with peers.  These connections can be helpful ways to provide emotional support for youth, especially for adolescents. 

 Simply listen. If ever youth need adults to listen, it is now. Being able to talk about an experience can support making meaning of a situation which is an important part of grieving.  Remember you don’t have to have all the answers. Silence is okay. Youth just need to know you care.

Sometimes life can be difficult, unfair, and painful. While adults cannot prevent or change all of these experiences, they can play a significant role in helping young people cultivate and practice skills that give them the ability to develop resiliency or the ability to overcome hardship. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University recommends that adults build supportive adult-child relationships as a way to strengthen a young person’s resiliency. Taking the time to listen and communicate with young people, being a positive example of healthy coping skills, and simply just being a calming reassuring presence are action steps that adults can implement now.  As adults, let’s take the time to prepare young people to become caring, connected and capable adults.

More information and resources about youth social emotional development in difficult times can be found at https://disaster.unl.edu/families or by contacting your local county Nebraska Extension office.