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The teenagers are not all right, but then again, neither are the adults. Pandemic life has been profoundly jarring, and every generation has felt it. I hear about people fighting on airplanes and an increase in violent crimes, then I attend my Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on Zoom and try to figure out why going back to “normal” is so hard. My 80-year-old mother never got COVID-19, but more than two years of sitting at home seems to have hastened her descent into dementia. Meanwhile, many young children are struggling to keep up with their education or even learn how to socialize.
Now imagine what this moment must be like for teenagers. In December, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning: Pandemic-related death, fear, loneliness, and economic uncertainty have worsened “the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.” It makes sense. Between unfamiliar hormones and trying to figure out who you are in the world, being a teen has always been incredibly hard. Pandemic teenagehood is even worse. Recently, I was reading a story in The New Yorker about child suicide when I learned that a friend of a friend’s teenager had died by suicide. I felt sick.
Living through a pandemic that has claimed more than a million American lives is not the only thing that’s making young people miserable. They’re also very much not in denial about the likely coming climate disaster. In a survey of 10,000 people ages 16 to 25, more than 45 percent said that their feelings about climate change had “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” Caroline Hickman, a lecturer at the University of Bath, in the United Kingdom, and the lead author of the study, told the BBC that “the young feel abandoned and betrayed by governments” for their inaction on climate change. It must be hard for young adults to feel that grown-ups care about them when their lawmakers refuse to meaningfully address arguably the largest challenge facing the next generation.
How are you supposed to guide, to reassure, to parent teenagers in this situation? I have three children ranging in age from 14 to 18. Soon after coming home from covering the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February 2020, I got an email from the organizers saying that I had been exposed to a new coronavirus. I wrote an email to the nurse at my older son’s school. Almost immediately, the phone rang; it was her. “We obviously can’t tell you what to do, but it would be a huge help if you’d keep your son home for a few days just until …”
It quickly became clear that neither of us had any idea how that sentence should end. I went into my eldest son’s bedroom soon after to explain to him why he had to stay home from school. Then I said what I always say when telling my kids something kind of scary: “I’m sure this is not a big deal. I’m sure everything is going to be fine.” I suspected that I was lying but I thought I was practicing a sort of normal parenting deception—the kind you do when you just need a kid to go to sleep or do their homework. Sure, you’ll use algebra in real life. Yes, skipping gym class is bad.
Then the unimaginable happened. Today, I can’t tell my teenagers that everything will be all right with a straight face. I don’t have answers for my kids, or for yours. As parents, we are tempted to pretend—to be brave for our kids—but I’m not sure that serves anyone anymore. I’m just trying to parent harder right now, whatever that means. Mostly, I’m attempting to be the annoying parent who’s always around. I come home from dinner early. I try not to take long trips. In lieu of actually knowing what the future holds, I just aim to be ready to react when my kids decide they need me.
My grandfather, the vaudeville drummer turned importer Seymour Mann, never got over surviving the 1918 flu pandemic. He couldn’t figure out why so many of his peers had died and he hadn’t. Seymour walked to work every single day of his life until he was in his 90s. He thought that not taking public transportation had saved his life. It probably hadn’t. Yet, barring a better answer, that was the conclusion he could live with, and it protected him from the truth he couldn’t face—that perhaps he survived out of sheer dumb luck. I don’t want to lie to myself or to my family about the messiness of our current reality. But part of me wishes that I had just a fraction of Seymour’s certainty so that I could give it to my children.