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Helping youth to cope with cancellations and loss

Over the past several years, young people have experienced many cancellations due to COVID-19 as well as other major societal changes. For youth, these losses can cause significant disappointment -- even feelings of grief. Cancellations of big life events like graduation were disappointing and disruptive, and some of these have continued as life has changed in some enduring ways. But young people can also experience these types of changes due to other causes, and even more, minor daily cancellations can result in similar feelings -- especially when they are mounting and ongoing.

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded a huge amount of flexibility and resilience for youth and their families. And it has left marks on the mental health and wellbeing of young people that continue to be the backdrop for dealing with the small changes, major losses and tough issues that life brings.

These losses can cause significant impacts on youth. Caring adults should recognize and address these feelings of ambiguous loss, which can have negative effects on their mental and physical health. If we help our young people to work through these challenges, they will emerge stronger, more resilient and better able to face future challenges.

What adults can do

Help young people to work through their feelings

  • Understand ambiguous loss: University of Minnesota professor emeritus Pauline Boss coined the term to describe losses that are not easily defined. The peak crisis of COVID-19 is full of these kinds of losses for all of us, but life can hold these for other reasons for youth, such as illness/injuries, major family changes or moves, or other changes beyond their control. Youth may miss out on major developmental and cultural milestones like graduations, school trips, prom and many others. Some youth are also socially isolated, and this can have negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing. Caring adults must take this issue seriously and help youth process what is going on. 
  • Recognize grief: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five common stages that people may pass through in the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These steps are not necessarily linear, and some people may only experience some of them. They also can cycle back through them more than once. But this is part of a very normal (yet challenging) process. Try to adapt your messages for the stage of the grief cycle they might be in.
  • Continue to connect with youth: Youth who have developmental relationships with caring adults have better outcomes, lower risk behaviors and are more likely to be on the path to thrive in life. Parents and other caring adults are understandably concerned about the impact that cancellations and losses have had on their young people.
    • Acknowledge their feelings. Encourage youth to express their feelings and physical sensations that come with the loss of the activity.
    • Encourage them to stay connected with their peers; this is their natural support group as an adolescent.
    • Be especially attuned to supporting youth who may not be as socially connected with peers or face barriers to connection.  Ask them what they need right now and how you might be able to support them.  
    • Shift focus to what they can control, such as their 4-H project work or service project. There are many 4-H activities they can do from home

Youth need outlets to express their feelings and thoughts. Healing occurs when a person accepts and moves through the emotions of fear, anger, and sadness to integrate a new reality, understanding what has been lost.

  • Offer new rituals:  Guidance from experts for helping navigate this time of changes and loss includes creating new routines and rituals in place of those that have been lost. Adolescents can be very creative and should be partners in problem-solving. 
  • Practice self-care. You are dealing with the loss and grief of canceled activities right along with the youth in your life. “Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.” In the midst of all of this, remember to be kind to yourself. By practicing self-care, you are modeling positive ways to deal with changes, anxieties, losses and strains.

During all times of major loss or change, have conversations with young people about loss and the emotions they are feeling.  Remember to show empathy and remind them that they are resilient and adaptable.  Encourage them to reflect on other challenges they have overcome in the past and to call upon the skills, strength and strategies they used to get through those tough times.

Conversation guide for families, clubs and groups

The Coping with Cancellations Conversation Guide is for families or groups of friends to discuss the impact of ongoing cancellations as a starting point for coping with loss. You can also use it when any life event creates a feeling of loss. The adaptable format ensures empathic listening and provides an activity to support healing and moving through feelings of disappointment, dashed hope, loss and concern for others. 

The Conversation Guide for Dialogue on Difficult and Important Topics is for families or groups of friends to have open conversations about racism, white privilege, sex, gun violence, mental health, death, politics, etc. It has guidelines for creating a safe space for sharing feelings, thoughts, concerns, ideas, etc., about important topics in a positive civil way. It can help you practice listening to different viewpoints without trying to fix or change them. 

Authors: Kathryn Sharpe and Karyn Santl, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2023

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