Last night I finally had the cry I'd been waiting for. I realized there were a few reasons I was blocked from my own deep sadness about the current state of the world and one of those reasons, which rung out so viscerally from my chest once I decided to listen, was that I was experiencing some retraumatization from September 11th.
Up until last night I was hesitant to compare the COVID crisis with September 11th. As a New Yorker, I feel very protective of September 11th (I won't even call it 9/11 because that feels too trendy and insincere), so carelessly throwing it around as some sort of touch point for the current state of things felt wrong.
But my quiet mind and chatty body informed me last night that this, indeed, has a lot of similarities to September 11th and it was mostly for that reason that I've blocked myself off to certain feelings. Because reliving September 11th is the last thing anyone wants to do.
And yet I must because that's the only way to be honest with myself now and tend to the wounds that are being reopened by incessant negative news, immense death, an uncertain future, a global lack of safety, and the community that rises together in the face of things like this.
In reliving my September 11th story, I not only recognized my own current areas of fragility, I recognized that there's a 15-year-old in me that still hasn't entirely healed. I don't think I ever imagined that healing from September 11th could be possible, so I just accepted that I had this extra appendage; this thing that would always be with me, this thing that sometimes I'd forget was there and other times would get so in my way that I would wish I could chop it off.
In reuniting with that 15-year-old last night, I realized I could possibly offer some insight to those of you in charge of a teenager right now in this unnerving time. I have some advice to give, or perhaps my inner 15-year-old does. And in order for me to get to the advice, I have to take you on the journey of reliving September 11th, just for a moment.
As you know, I was 15.
I was in my high school Italian class in Staten Island when Soccer Steve, a fellow classmate who was leaning up against the lockers in the back of the room listening to the radio on his Walkman, jumped up and said "a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!"
Fear spiked immediately, especially among those of us who had parents that worked in or around the Trade Center. But we were still in a pre-September 11th world in that moment which meant we couldn't have written the rest of the story if we channeled our most sensational apocalyptic fantasies and gave it the ol' college try. What followed that day was truly unfathomable, so the news of a plane hitting a tall building, especially with something similar happening to the Empire State Building once upon a time, gave us no true indication of what it all meant.
I sat in class staring out the window at a plane flying by, trying to remember how big planes were, and trying to understand what damage they could do to the biggest, boldest, boxiest buildings I'd ever known. All the while frustrated as hell that I had no way of getting more information. We didn't have smartphones then and the school, in its own administrative fear, all but put each classroom on lockdown in effort to reduce the scent of crisis in the air. This did not help. And at 15, I didn't have the agency or ability to demand a different response, e.g. leaving school and driving myself home.
At 15 you're already angsty, you're doubtful and suspicious of authority, you're trying to understand the layout of the world and where in it you are safe.
And then September 11th happens and the already-unstable foundation you were trying to cement gets ripped out from under you completely. Everything becomes a threat and nothing matters anymore. Meaning becomes irrelevant, anger takes over, and goodness dies. I don't mean people goodness -- New Yorkers rallied together in the most beautiful way -- but I mean real, deep down, what's-it-all-about goodness. It dies. Confusion shrouds every thought you have, peace feels like an impossibility. At least that's what happened to me.
September 11th and the COVID crisis are not the same in so many ways. September 11th was felt by the world but it consumed us most specifically in New York City. I can't speak for other parts of the country but I can't imagine California, for instance, went through the same thing New York went through that day. COVID is impacting every literal human specimen on this planet. September 11th was a violent terrorist attack which was sudden and quick and left us feeling vulnerable and furious. COVID has a slower reveal and while it also makes us feel vulnerable, unlike a terrorist attack, it's a virus without an identifiable enemy and so the fury may not be present to the same degree. If it is present, it's not quite sure where to go other than on political figures who should have acted sooner. And that is a real problem, because lack of faith in the government was something I felt after September 11th, too, and as a teenager, recognizing the devil has all the power is a tough knowing to swallow.
But September 11th and the COVID crisis share grief and confusion; they share fear of what comes next, the sense that this can't possibly be real, and this wild, uncontainable, existential loneliness.
Not all teenagers are the same, of course. You may have one that seems to not care at all about what's going on - and perhaps they don't, or perhaps they don't know how else to handle it other than to shut down. You may also have a teenager that's feeling all the feelings and might not have the tools or language to process them. Some teens (and people in general) are more sensitive than others. As a highly sensitive person myself, I don't say that as a bad thing. In fact our sensitivity can be a superpower if honed well rather than shunned or shamed. Without writing (and even moreso a creative writing teacher specifically mentoring me to shed my pain onto the page - thanks as always, Mr. Barrett), I'm not quite sure how I would have evolved out of the utter hopelessness that consumed me in 2001.
But regardless of your adolescent's individual personality, what many kids of a certain age share is this extra vulnerability, one that leaves them scared or even resentful for having to handle such adult things without even having their feet firmly planted on the ground first. Adults, we feel lost and unstable, too. But we've had a running start to establish something of a confidence, an understanding, and even a protective jadedness about the world that our teenage friends are right now, live as we speak, developing for themselves. Adolescents don't quite have the armor we have to find some semblance of reassurance in a crisis like this, however fleeting.
DOs and DON'Ts, But First the DON'Ts
Before I tell you what worked for me and soothed my soul, I have to first tell you about the responses that pushed me away and made me feel alone.
As I sat in my high school Italian class moments in between hearing about a plane flying into a building I knew and loved and waiting for the bell to ring, I realized that some adults have no idea how to handle these situations effectively. My Italian teacher excitedly said "oh, maybe we'll get a day off tomorrow!" And while she had no way of knowing exactly the magnitude of what was to come in the following minutes, it was still a flippant statement that dismissed the implied deaths of what initially seemed like an accident, and it rejected the students' overwhelming fear. Minimizing the situation is invalidating and it puts a barrier of distrust between you and the person that desperately needs your guidance.
In my next class, English, our stern pillar of academia carried on with his lesson plan demanding that we pay attention to him rather than get riled up by the news. It's worth noting that in between these 2 classes, it was revealed that a second plane hit, therefore spreading panic in the understanding that the first one was not, in fact, an accident. We were terrified. We couldn't contact our loved ones. Our city was under attack, and all he wanted to talk about was the literature homework we had last night. Entirely avoiding or denying a real life event is reckless, ineffective, and counterproductive as it will lead to increased levels of distress.
The last class I sat in before my mother came to the school to bring me home was my creative writing class. And that Mr. Barrett guy I was telling you about earlier, the one who encouraged me to write through my suffering and all but saved my life because of it, he arranged the chairs in a circle, he sat amongst those of us left (I think only about 6 students) and said, with tears filling his eyes "guys, I'm sad and scared and confused, too. Let's talk about this." And as he gave space for us to finally speak freely, ask questions no one had the answers to, and be in our honest-to-God feelings, he made us feel normal for the first time all day. Not "normal" as though nothing was happening but "normal" as though something horrific was in fact happening and our genuine, messy, uncontrollable human responses were about all we had to get us through it.
Authority figures, be they teachers, parents, or whoever else has the daunting task of molding our youth, tend to go into control mode when shit gets real. They think shutting things down and demanding a certain way of being are necessary steps to keep everyone safe. And I get it. But it doesn't work.
How to Show Up For Your Teen
The Hungry Feminine has been nothing if not a call to action for nurturance, and the world needs nurturance now more than we've ever known it to. Adolescents arguably need a little extra love because of their developmental needs and the inherent struggles that come from being a teenager.
I write this not from the perspective of a parent, but as a therapist who worked closely with adolescents and as someone who went through a national tragedy during my own harrowing teenage years. Here are some things worth doing:
Talk To Your Kids Honestly
Let them know you're feeling the same way they feel and that it's okay to have a mix of emotions that evolve throughout this time. Let them know you're piecing together information, too, and that it's okay to not know exactly what's happening or what to do next. Do not ignore what's happening or push them to avoid reality - it will not work. Meet them where they are and let them know you completely understand because you're right where they are.
Reassure Them Where You Can
Despite the confusion and uncertainty, reassure them that you've got just enough of a grip on things that you feel capable of responding and handling what may or may not come next. Remind them that they're not alone and that peace can be found in the shared distress. Model for them how to be flexible in ever-changing times. Inform them that while there is much uncertainty in the world right now, you will help them stay safe and that they can come to you whenever they need support.
Don't Try to Change How They Feel
One of the worst things that can happen when you open up to someone about how terrible you feel is to have them say "it'll be fine, don't worry, at least it's not as bad as it could be." If your teenager is sad, let them be sad. It's healthy to be sad. If your teenager is angry, let them be angry. It's healthy to be angry. If your teenager is bored, let them be bored. It's healthy to be bored. Whatever they feel, let them feel it. Support them there, keep them company in their feelings, don't try to solve their emotions or change what's coming out of them, just allow it to be and validate that you hear and respect them.
Invite Open Communication
This is one way to help keep your kiddo safe. If you allow a secure space for them to share their experience without judgment, dismissive minimizing, or overreations, it can decrease possible concerns that they're putting themselves in risky situations with ineffective coping skills or an overwhelm of depression.
If you're concerned your teenager is a risk to themselves, seek out professional support. Most therapists are now seeing clients through video or phone sessions and telehealth services like BetterHelp and TalkSpace allow clients to text rather than talk. It's not an ideal form of therapy but it beats no therapy at all, and it may remove barriers to entry since your teenanger's already on their phone all day, right? You can also utilize my support page for crisis resources.
Foster Their Creativity
Encourage your budding adult to find or foster an outlet through which they can process this. Let them know they can use what's accessible to them to create their way to some understanding, even if that understanding is of themselves and not the bigger picture. Create with them or support them to hone their own craft by giving them space and freedom to purge their feelings into some art form. For me it was writing, without which I may have gone completely off the grid. For your kid it could be music, martial arts, making films, dancing, building things, tearing down things (that are safe and okay to tear down), art, or even creating funny TikTok videos.
Have Fun With Them
Do you both love watching movies or playing baseball or crafting or dancing or singing or watching comedy? Whatever it is, share some positive bonding time with them, too. Show them that we can feel all sorts of things in times like these and that having fun is okay, too. While completely avoiding or denying bad things is unhealthy, we don't have to live in them all the time. We can take breaks, keep the news to a minimum, and allow space for things that couldn't find space before.
Be Kind To Yourself
Parents, teachers, counselors, friends - this is not a judgment of your human reactions. You are not required to be perfect. But my angsty teenage self walked away from September 11th with enough insight about what not to do, and today it feels worth sharing. Tend to your emotions needs, too, and if you need therapy, get it. I'm currently seeing clients via video telehealth in California if you need support.
Above all, be kind to yourself for not having the perfect way of handling this. It's okay, you're doing a great job and you're doing it all without an instruction manual or a coach feeding you all the plays. Take it easy, rest when you can, feel what you feel, and allow yourself to make mistakes because you will, and that puts you right where you ought to be.