I have been thinking of the various ways in which the pandemic has affected youth and there is no greater loss for them than that of safe places in our communities where they can gather and socialize and be their lovely, unfettered selves.

Wise societies have always found ways to allow teens to learn about and develop independence by themselves, but in our communities. Skateboard parks, boys’ and girls’ clubs and even the traditional “rumspringa” in Amish communities are all institutions that can provide youth safe spaces to do all the things that are normal for adolescents. With the pandemic limiting getting together outside of “bubbles”, teens are denied these opportunities and we are seeing that this is a source of distress for them.

Every parent with an adolescent, or who has raised an adolescent, is aware that experimentation, risk-taking and pushing boundaries are all part of the normal experiences of adolescence. We know this – sometimes to our horror – but we have also always prepared for this by planning community spaces and dances and socials.

Even recess and lunch break at school, as much as some teens say they dread them, can be delightful opportunities to mingle and talk and solve problems when you have a few friends to spend them with. In the pandemic, the social aspects of recess and lunch breaks have disappeared, having given way to eating at your desk to avoid contaminating each other. It’s safe, but lonely.

If we are serious about protecting teens’ mental health during the pandemic, then we must acknowledge the need to find ways for them to be together  and do the ridiculous, foolhardy things that are typical and that help them develop emotionally and intellectually. To do this, we will likely have to remember some of the things we did ourselves and contemplate how we would manage these from a safe social distance.

How would you provide teens with a chance to contemplate who is really the cutest boy in Grade 10? I mean, you need to see them to compare.

How do you reasonably discuss with several other people who can ride their bike down the steepest hill in town the fastest? Is it best to go late at night when there are fewer cars? Would you need a reflective vest? Or a promise that no one will tell your mother?? It takes at least five youth together discussing this to finally realize that this is a bad idea. If an adult tells you this, you’ll never really be sure but discussing this together, you’ll probably work out the right answer.

Could you have a socially distanced dance somehow? Would the principal help you plan it as a school activity to raise money for charity?

How do they plan those drive-by events? Can we have one?

Adults are going to have to sit down with teens to help them figure out how they can be together in these very unusual times and every parent and teacher knows what this means. It means you will have to listen to more wild and foolish ideas than usual. As someone who has heard wild ideas from five youth in my home and hundreds of others over many years of practice, I am looking forward to every innovative suggestion. Necessity is the mother of invention!

(Note: This digital image was created by Ahmee Smith, a student at San Luis Obispo High School.)

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