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Looking Beyond the Lost Senior Year

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If your house is home to a recent high school graduate, you’ve probably seen articles like this one, whose author argues that the truncated school years of millions of high school seniors will have a long-lasting, deleterious effect. No prom, no College Decision Day, no in-person graduation—none of the quintessential milestones and traditions that define the American high school experience. 

Many of my own students have used the term “lost” to describe their senior year. It’s sad. It’s unfair. It’s unprecedented and often traumatic. But what if there’s also something of a silver lining?

It is undeniable that many people have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many individuals have lost jobs, lost family members, and experienced a suffocating pall of anxiety and depression. COVID-19 will go down in history as one of the defining events of our generation. In no way am I suggesting that this is, overall, good for people. Instead, I’m highlighting what might be some hopeful outcomes for high schoolers.

Let’s begin with the fact that American teenagers already experience anxiety and depression at a disproportionate clip. Two of the primary causes are being overscheduled and losing a close connection with their parents. Sleep deprivation among teenagers has reached staggering levels, with less than 9% of teenagers getting enough sleep. Here’s a typical schedule for a high school senior:

  • 6:30 a.m. — Wake up.
  • 7:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m. — Attend school.
  • 3:00-5:00 p.m. — Attend an extracurricular. 
  • 5:00-9:00 p.m. — Work.
  • 9:00 p.m.-12:00 a.m. — Do homework and chores.
  • 12:30 a.m. — Go to sleep.

Somewhere in the day, your student might find the time for two potentially nutritious meals, often while multi-tasking and not always with their families.

Many high schoolers try to “catch up” on sleep on the weekends, but the notion that you can bank enough rest in two days to make up for five days of exhaustion is a fallacy. Even if they could catch up, they’re operating at a suboptimal level for five days, only to crash for two.

The schedule outlined above leaves no room for the spontaneous activities that are critical to mental health—time in nature, time with friends, and perhaps, yes, time with video games. I’m not advocating that your child loafs around all day. 

“But a brain is like any other muscle. Without sufficient rest, it will be pushed to the limit and torn apart.”

Basic neuroscience teaches us that a healthy brain, teenage or not, needs idle time so the subconscious can do its important work of background process learning. If it means they’re happier and healthier, so be it. Maybe daydreaming should be considered a legitimate extracurricular activity.  

Another fallacy in America is that teenagers are hard-wired to be rebels, that they want no part of their parents once they reach puberty. On the contrary, this is exactly the time when your child wants to communicate more. In many other countries and ancient societies, the teenage years are and were a time to engage with elders in order to learn how to navigate adulthood.

In The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, Ned Johnson and William Stixrud talk about home as a safe base, “[where] they can go to seek a respite from it all, where they feel safe and loved unconditionally, where they can fully relax, so that they can gather the energy to go back out.” For some families, the COVID-19 pandemic may have created a desperately needed extended time for seniors at their safe base. 

I spoke with a mother of one of my students, who, despite acknowledging the challenges of being stuck at home with three children, admitted, “I feel blessed to be able to spend this time with my (senior) daughter before she goes to college. Before, she was going to practice, to work, to all kinds of extracurriculars. And right now she is going through a bit of a personal crisis. So it’s really important to connect.” Pre-quarantine, this mom may have sent her child off to college without addressing things that only mom and daughter can suss out together. Another mother told me pre-pandemic she was lucky to have family dinners a few times a month. Now it’s every night.

Jogging around my neighborhood, I see teenagers and parents talking to each other. At the state park near my house, a normally sleep-deprived, annoyed son was out kayaking with his mom, smiling and enjoying the outdoors together. It’s as if stripping away all of the trivialities of daily life has reminded parents why they love their children—and vice versa. 

Take note: I’m not suggesting that a shelter-in-place order is what students need for the foreseeable future, or that there haven’t been some trying moments for all families. Kids need their friends, they need to get out of the house, they need to engage with teachers and counselors and coaches for a sense of identity and belonging. 

Yes, losing some of the most fun and important parts of senior year is a bummer. But let’s not forget that in March 2020, we already had a crisis on our hands, one that has been brewing for years: the mental, emotional, and physical well-being of our teenagers. 

From here, from this Great Pause, perhaps we can build a new model for the quintessential American teenage experience. 


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