Nikki Shasserre normally gets one, maybe two alerts per week from Bark, a parental monitoring app she uses to track texts and social media on her teenager’s cell phone.
Bark sends Shasserre and her husband snippets of conversations that contain concerning words or phrases, like “guns” or “sex” or “suicide.” They are words that their daughter, Cathy, either typed or received. The idea is to prompt conversations between parents and their kids when something potentially concerning pops up.
Shasserre said they sometimes even get funny ones that the app mistakes as concerning.
“One time it flagged for sexual content (a conversation on) their AP Bio project on fruit flies, because they were doing the mating process and trying to get them to reproduce in their labs,” she said.
But when schools abruptly shut down to curb the curve of the coronavirus pandemic, and Cathy and her classmates’ senior year was cut off without fanfare, Shasserre noticed a huge influx of alerts from Bark.
“Now, there are days that I get 10 to 15 alerts per day,” Shasserre said. “Ninety percent of the alerts that we’re getting are for depression. The other day, I got one for suicidal thoughts.”
It wasn’t from Cathy, but from one of her friends. The text was something along the lines of: “I don’t know how much longer I can take this. I’m getting so sad.”
Shasserre said the text was a wake-up call of sorts for herself and her husband. She said they had already been checking in with their kids every day since the coronavirus shutdowns began, but noticed that Cathy often seemed reluctant to share or would simply say she was fine.
Shasserre said the texts and alerts have made her realize just how much Cathy and her friends, and other teenagers in the pandemic, “are facing a lot of real sadness, a lot of real loss.”
“And especially for her, she’s a senior. So as all of these dates are approaching…I got a lot of alerts when prom passed, that her friends were all really sad about prom. And for (Cathy), it’s missing these different track meets. It’s missing awards night. It’s all of these things that pop up that we’ve all had on our calendars, all of these Senior events that…they’re still written on our family calendar and they’re in most of our phones. And so, you get the alert that pops up. ‘Oh, it’s supposed to be awards night.’ Or, ‘Oh, it’s supposed to be the parent breakfast coming up.’”
Caroline Doyon is a Catholic teenager finishing up her junior year at Bloomington High School North in Indiana.
Doyon said she first heard that coronavirus might close down her school while she was on spring break with three friends and a parent chaperone in Florida.
“We were all really concerned and so we came home early,” Doyon told CNA.
“And my mom was telling me how we probably won’t go back to school, and I really thought it would be just like a week or two. And then after those first two weeks of e-learning at home, they announced the rest of the school year would be over.”
Doyon said she feels lucky that she’s only a junior.
“I feel like if I was a senior I would be devastated. I just know that I would hate to miss graduation.”
There are still things that have made her sad, she said. Prom was canceled and her final dance recital was canceled, as were other end-of-the-year events. And she misses her friends.
“I think for the first couple of weeks of quarantine, it was just really sad. I know that I love school and I love being there with everybody, so it was really hard on me because I like hanging out with my friends,” she told CNA.
Doyon said she’s made a point to check in regularly with her friends, especially when they mention they are feeling especially sad or that their families are driving them crazy.
“I especially know, for one of my friends…even before this whole entire lockdown, whenever she was alone or she wasn’t in contact with a lot of people she would get, she would fall into a little bit of a state of depression and she would just feel all alone and like nobody cared for her. And so when all of this happened, I made sure to talk to her and we FaceTime pretty often. It’s just maintaining that contact, even though you can’t be with them.”
There have been some silver linings, she said. Every student was provided with a laptop so that they could continue learning at home, and without the distractions at school, Doyon said she has been able to get a lot of work done.
“We met in an old K-Mart parking lot, and we parked in a circle. And we all opened up our trunks and we sat in the back facing each other. I think the first time we hung out like that, we stayed there for like four hours, just talking.”
“I definitely know that for teenagers, we like to be social, so it’s really hard for us to just sit at home and to have nothing to do.”
Kathleen Kozak is a teacher of teenagers as well as a mother to three teens of her own (and a fourth son who is a pre-teen). Kozak, who teaches high school theology at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, said she has been focusing on bringing some kind of order into the lives of both her students and her teenagers at home.
Both Kozak and her husband have previously served in the military, she told CNA, and during this time, they’ve tapped into their ability to adapt to unexpected situations that would arise in the military.
“So I was thinking, okay, how can we adapt and overcome in this? And how do we want to be remembered in this time? I don’t necessarily need to accomplish everything, but what things can we do to create order amongst us having all these variations of emotions?”
Kozak said she’s been inspired by Pope Francis’ example and has been following his lead. When, in March, Pope Francis asked everyone to pray the rosary, Kozak and her family prayed the rosary live on YouTube that night at 9 p.m., joined virtually by friends and family who could not gather together in person.
“My family and I sat at the kitchen table and we prayed the rosary on YouTube Live that night. And then after we finished, many of the people that joined us were like, ‘Well are you going to keep going?’ So actually we’ve been praying the rosary online every night at 9:00,” she said.
The routine rosary has come with a flood of prayer intentions from friends and family, she said, giving them an even greater sense of purpose as they pray.
Kozak has also been helping her kids and students focus on the things they can do, in light of the things that they cannot.
She said she will first acknowledge their feelings and say, “Okay, this is really hard,” when they talk about their sports seasons or proms being canceled.
“I mean the list can go on and on for all the losses,” Kozak said. But she said based on the experience of her husband’s deployment, when he missed out on several significant family moments, she is encouraging them to focus on the things they can change and can do at this time.
“My husband missed a lot in my kids’ eyes. He was not there for my daughter’s eighth grade graduation. There was a ton that we lost in time. And I said, ‘But we were able to create other memories of him being overseas and us being here using technology. So how can you create different things using this gift of technology that we have?’”
She has also been encouraging her kids and students to rely on prayer – something that got her through the loss of one of her children, Liam.
“The question can be asked, how do you feel God in the sense of a pandemic? And I say to them: I have to go to prayer. And for me, the prayer I go to when I have no words, that my grandma taught me, is the rosary. When she had no words, when her husband died or my cousin died, that was her go-to. And so that then became my go-to,” she said.
During her online Zoom classes with her students, Kozak said she has also gotten to know her students in a “whole new way” because of the pandemic. When she is done teaching, Kozak breaks her students up into “family” groups, and she then checks in with each family to see how everyone is doing.
“There’s been more sharing of the heart and just the shared experience of it all. It’s allowed us in many ways to get closer than in our other semesters,” she said.
Daniel Johnson is a Catholic marriage and family therapy associate with Divine Mercy Clinic based in Duarte, California, who frequently works with adolescents experiencing depression, suicidal ideation, self harm, and anxiety.
Johnson told CNA that it’s important for families to recognize that teenagers are in many ways facing the same feelings of loss and isolation and fatigue that adults are experiencing during these times of sheltering at home and social distancing.
“What I’m seeing…in my teenage clients is really the reaction to a dramatic change, and then not knowing the length of time that they have to endure this. Which is really true of all of us,” Johnson said.
“It might be manifested differently in the teens, precisely because so much of their normal development is centered around their peer group and the cues that they get from other teens,” he added.
“Many of them, especially the ones who go to traditional school, or larger schools, they’re going to have a particularly difficult time not having those peer groups or the cues that they get from the social setting, which they are very used to,” he said.
Cues like graduation, or end-of-the-year academic or athletic banquets, or final performances that signal the end of something and the completion of a goal, are now gone.
“They had a game plan and they were working towards a goal. And that goal, at least…the sign that they’re achieving that goal – prom, graduation, whatever sort of thing schools do to mark the end of the year – those have been ripped away from kids. And so there is isolation and there is that kind of sadness,” he said.
Johnson said the first thing he does with his clients who are struggling with the isolation and the drastic changes brought about by sheltering at home is to acknowledge to them that what they are feeling is normal and understandable.
“It’s just acknowledging the emotions that are going on, or normalizing, to use the clinical term, the fact that you know, ‘yeah, I’m sad and I’m angry and I’m stressed and I don’t know what to do.’”
Johnson said the second thing he does to help his clients is to encourage them to connect in new ways to their support group, whether that’s family or friends or a combination of both.
“Things that involve other human beings as the focus, not things that involve being in the same room as other human beings while other stuff is going on, like TV,” he said.
The third thing Johnson said he has found helpful for his adolescent clients is to help them focus on short term goals and establishing a routine – especially since it is currently unclear when and how they will be able to accomplish some of their longer-term goals, such as going to college in the fall when some of those colleges may be closed, either permanently or at least to in-person classes.
“What I mean is really settling into a routine, finding the four or five things that are essential to you having a good day. And let’s just make sure we do each of those every day,” he said.
“For a lot of clients, it’s something as simple as some daily exercise, talking to one or two other people, doing some prayer, and getting some work done on a class. Those kinds of things. It’s focused on what is necessary for these 24 hours to be a good 24 hours.”
Johnson said he would encourage parents to be on the lookout for especially concerning signs of depression or self-harm, but that some level of depression is probably normal for their teenagers right now.
“In the most clinical mind, we’re all probably more or less clinically diagnosable as depressed at the moment….The problem is that, at the moment, there’s some darn good reason to be depressed.”
Johnson said parents could look for signs of their child not grooming themselves for more than 24 hours, or spending a lot more time sleeping than usual, as possible signs of concern.
“I think the real difficulty at the moment is, we judge depression and anxiety in relation to a baseline. We judge too much sleep by the last couple months. I’ve gotten about six hours of sleep every night, suddenly I’m sleeping nine hours. The problem is right now, we’re all having a difficult time figuring out what our baseline is. It’s even harder to get that baseline for our teenagers.”
The most powerful thing that can help teenagers at this time are parents who remain calm and collected, Johnson said, or who are able to honestly acknowledge their own feelings and experiences with their teenagers.
“I think in some ways the best thing a parent can do really is, take a deep breath, put on a calm demeanor for their kid and then, late at night, go outside and yell at the moon or something…whatever you need to do to decompress,” he said.
“Or alternatively, if it’s hard to hide it from the kids, be honest with your kids about the emotion that’s going on in that and transparent about one’s struggle to keep it together,” he said.
Shasserre said that she has found it helpful for her to acknowledge her own feelings of sadness and loss at the things she is missing out on in Cathy’s senior year.
“It doesn’t help when we dismiss it. It’s helped when we’ve been able to talk about it with Cathy also by saying, ‘I am really sad that we won’t get to go to the senior parent Mass and breakfast. I was really looking forward to doing that.’”
“And when she responds, ‘Well, it’s okay. I understand. There are bigger things in the world,’ I will say, ‘Yes. I’m glad that you can see that. But it doesn’t diminish that this is still sad.’ There’s a grieving process. There’s a loss that they have to go through.”