AC’s Social Worker and Student Counselor, Kate Dunlavey, recently spoke with parents of graduating seniors to provide support techniques to help students navigate the wide range of emotions they may be feeling during these uncertain times. Throughout the session, Kate focused on the importance of students finding closure nearing the end of the their high school careers and preparing for the next chapters of their lives. She also discussed coping strategies for to process the grief students may feel in response to the potential cancellation of senior milestone events.
Below is some of her parting advice to parents.
A – Plan for right now
When we don’t have answers we begin to fill in the blanks for ourselves. We get stuck in future and past thinking which increases feelings of anxiety and depression. We need to get off the hamster wheel and the way to do that is to get focused on the present.
What can I do right now, in this moment?
What do I have control of right now?
- Use techniques such as mindfulness (defined as anything that gets you focused on the present like taking a walk/reading/yoga/meditation).
- Use the Pay it Forward Challenge to reconnect with a sense of purpose, self control and agency. What can you do to infuse positive messages of hope and support into the world? Examples from Kate’s family, my kids chalk jokes and happy messages to neighbors at the end of our driveway, we put rainbows in the windows to represent hope and good things after the storm, etc.
- Use visual imagery exercises like the Container Exercise (script below) for a safe place to store worries and feelings until we need to or are ready to do something with them.
Container Exercise script:
We are going to create a container that is big enough and strong enough to hold all of your worries and all of your feelings about what is going on right now.
How big is your container? (the size of a box, a room, a house, a building, a mountain, etc.)What is your container made of? (metal, wood, plastic, etc.) Can people see inside?
How does it open and close? Does it lock? Can anyone go in and out or just you? If it locks/unlocks with a key where do you keep the key so it is safe? *this can be magic too!
If a hurricane comes, does your container survive? If there is damage, what changes are needed to fix the damage and make the container stronger?
Once the container feels complete, visualize opening the container in your mind.
Name what color your worried feelings are inside you.
Name what color calm and peaceful energy is, and picture it all around you.
Take three deep breaths. On inhale, picture the calm energy going in and pushing the worried feelings out on exhale. Worried feelings go into your container safely.
[Check in after three breaths to see if there are more worried feelings to get out or if what is left is stuck.]
Visualize closing and locking the container.
Your feelings are safe.
B – Plan for the short term (next few weeks/months)
IF senior events are canceled we can expect a disruption in closure milestones and a disruption in launching milestones.
- Saying good-bye to AC community/friends/etc.
- Processing the end of a chapter with one another
- Graduation parties
- The “what are you doing next year” conversation
- Sharing future plans
This is a loss, and we will all likely experience grief around this.
The Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of Grief (image below) can help us understand the emotional wave we will experience from denial to anger, to bargaining, to depression and finally acceptance (I don’t like it, I can’t do anything to change it, I am going to make my peace with it) and then back through them all again.
Parents and children will all experience this grief. It is critical for parents to model self-care. Children do what we DO not what we say. If you are managing your grief and taking care of yourself, it gives them permission to do the same. Let them see you grieve this and process it together. The best way to help our children through this process is to bear witness (definition below), to let them know we see them and hear them. To validate their feelings. Sometimes, when we try to make it better for our children, we accidentally invalidate their feelings. They don’t need us to make it better, they need us to see and hear them. Reflect feelings back to them (“This is really hard. I don’t blame you for being super upset about this.”).
Definition of Bearing Witness from “Psychology Today”:
“Bearing witness is a term that refers to sharing our experiences with others, most notably in the communication to others of our experiences. Bearing witness is a valuable way to process an experience, to obtain empathy and support, to lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and to obtain catharsis. It is widely confirmed in the literature that validation in the course of and bearing witness is vital and necessary in remembering and in the healing process.”
A reminder to all that, when we face loss, grief is a NORMAL process. This is a great time to help children create connections and develop networks with peers or other adults to process thoughts and feelings. We can also invite our children to have hard conversations with us (“You are older and more mature now, and if you want to sit down and talk about anything, I will give it to you straight.”). We have an opportunity to teach our children how to manage challenging information, decision making, and longer term planning. This included financial conversations if necessary (around college options).
C – Plan for the long term
We will adjust to this new way of living. We will keep, and honor, what we need to, and we will mourn and let go of what we need to/have to. Rituals help us process, heal, and integrate life experiences. In the midst of this, it is important to create new rituals. We can help our children find closure and meet launching milestones by finding new ways to meet those needs and new rituals to honor them. An example of a new ritual that has already emerged is birthday drive-by’s. These are a meaningful way of celebrating and honoring someone in a new and thoughtful way. We can get creative and work together to find new ways to celebrate and honor our seniors. Most importantly, we must stay connected.
Posted in: Twelfth Grade, Upper School