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Stocking Up for This Winter: Tips for the Adolescent in All of Us

If you haven’t seen the German government’s tongue-in-cheek ad encouraging young adults to help fight the spread of COVID, it’s worth a look. In the style of a war memoir documentary, it features an old man looking back on this winter:

I’m a sucker for any appeal asking me to be as “lazy as a racoon.” Yet the line “our patience was our weapon” resonates with me the most—because right now, my stock of that particular ammunition is getting low.

I am not, I think, alone. I mutter at rising covid rates in the newspaper the way some people yell at sports teams on T.V.. Slowing down in the grocery store in order to stay six feet from a slowpoke makes me sigh audibly and roll my eyes like a whole middle school class punished for something we didn’t do. We pine for the people we haven’t seen, while every little tic of those we do see every day drives us crazy.

As patience wears thin, our urge to act can overtake our judgement. Then we do self-destructive things, both individually and as communities. Right now, that urge to act contrary to evidence and our own benefit is a bipartisan American phenomenon, even if we express it in different ways. States like Iowa have spent months resisting mask mandates, even as evidence mounts that they are crucial for slowing the spread of the virus—relenting only this week. Cities like New York are backing down about keeping schools open for in-person instruction—or balking at opening them in the first place—even when ample evidence suggests transmission in schools is quite low and can be kept that way, while the probability of long-term damage from remote instruction remains high. We are not at peak reasonableness, and stress is one reason why.

Reacting to stress with recklessness and wild miscalculations of the consequences of one’s actions is typical adolescent behavior. So maybe what all of us could use right now, among other things, is an expert on how to manage adolescent thinking.

Psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Damour has written a number of articles throughout the pandemic about how to help children and teens manage the stresses of this time. And as she mentioned in a brief EdWeek article on what teachers can do to help students cope, “Be sure to do for yourself what you are doing for your students.”

So what does Dr. Damour recommend?

Connect. She notes, “Children learn best in the context of warm, authentic connections with their teachers…but it will take extra effort in online environments or in classrooms where safety protocols weigh heavily.”

There’s no denying that connecting meaningfully even among friends takes more conscious effort these days, just as it becomes more important for our stress management. This is where I take my inspiration from Shameika Freeman, a Partnership Kindergarten teacher, and so many of our teachers. Shameika noted in a Partnership Post a few weeks ago that as a hugger she’s had to find new ways to affirm and comfort her students, a conscious effort to replace years of instinctual behavior. But she’s doing it, and in the process she’s finding little uplifting gems of connection for both her and her students.

Have a sense of purpose. As Christian Dallavis shared this summer, if  we come to see the demands COVID places on us as means by which we live out our deepest-held beliefs, then drudgery becomes meaningful sacrifice.

For my colleagues and I, this week provided a particularly poignant reminder of our purpose, when the Presidential transition team announced that Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon would become Dr. Jill Biden’s Chief of Staff. A few years back, Ambassador Pantaleon sat where a few hundred of our students do now—in the classrooms of St. Athanasius School in the Bronx. Quite simply, our purpose is to ensure that whole cohorts of our students can follow her lead—pursuing flourishing lives of service in a wide variety of fields. So we mask up all day or hop on yet another Zoom or do whatever else it takes, because right there in our classrooms we’ve got diplomats and entrepreneurs, social justice innovators and vaccine developers, and their growth toward such callings cannot wait for a risk-free day to arrive.

It’s worth noting that as Catholics, we believe that not just any old purpose will do. Our lives take on real meaning when we maximize our unique gifts for something larger than ourselves. In this way, having a purpose also connects us to others.

Offer predictability and control. As Dr. Damour notes, “Resilience grows when young people have ways to feel that not everything is beyond their control.” Educators can certainly relate to stressed out teens right now, because we’d like to control a lot more than we do.

This is where the serenity prayer is a life-saver—particularly the part about wisdom: “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Differentiating what we can control, and then having the guts and sense of purpose to keep controlling it, can help us access patience when it’s hard.

In fact, the more things feel like they are spiraling, the more we need to concentrate on those things we can control—even if it’s just our own routines and thinking—both for the sake of the kids we teach and for our own sanity.

We may not, as the German ad suggests, be able to be “as lazy as raccoons”; just controlling our own rash impulses takes more effort than that. But if we can connect, maintain a sense of purpose, and control what we can, then we can manage our stress, summon more patience, and be the kind of heroes this odd age is calling us to be.

Beth Blaufuss is the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Partnership Schools.