Having worked with adolescents for several years, this fall felt different. Young people have always gone back to school with changes and new goals. Often, once school starts, they quickly get back into old friendships and familiar routines, and soon all of the resolves are forgotten. Not in 2021! In my work with adolescents, I have been amazed and impressed this fall by many young people.
I have noticed over the last few weeks that many adolescents were extremely anxious about returning to in-person school, after a year and a half of virtual learning. Most of the clients who spoke to me about this were most worried about the social aspects of dealing with peers again. Seeing these same young people again, after one or two weeks of school attendance, I asked each of them about their adjustment. Over all, they were feeling much better about themselves, school, and their futures. They were surprised their lengthy social isolation had not erased their ability to converse in person and to make friends.
Being not only a therapist to adolescents, but also a mother of two teenagers, I have noticed interesting dynamics in my own teens, as well as in several clients. The difficult period of isolation left a permanent mark. However, a lasting impression is not always a negative.
I have noticed that many teens are more serious about academics now, as they return to school. They are not (overall) as quick to complain about teachers, or about waking up to go to school. There are not quite as many who want to skip class or be disruptive. Going without something that they had taken for granted all of their lives has grown into a new ability to appreciate school, social life, and teachers in general. (Of course, it is still early in the school year, and there will always be exceptions). Yet, my observation is a marked difference from previous school terms that I have witnessed over the last 7 years.
With one especially insightful young client, I marveled at the beauty of her description. Beginning her sophomore year this fall, she was attempting to describe to me the difference she feels within, as she returns to in-person learning. Together, we worked on comparing her priorities, values and goals pre-pandemic, to those same things now. I was amazed at her insight. I pointed out to her all the healthy ways her thinking has changed. In summary, she went from external motivations pre-pandemic, to now having some deep internal motivations. She matured greatly, because of the pressure and isolation of the last year and a half.
Suddenly I drew an analogy—chrysalis! Many adolescents have been similar to a caterpillar in a cocoon during the COVID-19 pandemic. These young people have been going through a metamorphosis similar to “chrysalis”. Chrysalis is the transformation stage a caterpillar goes through while inside a cocoon, where the caterpillar tissues are broken down and reorganized to form the adult butterfly structure.
Similarly, the generation of young people who have gone through the pandemic have been broken down to their core, through social isolation and online learning. As clinicians, we have seen the depression, anxiety, and hopelessness taking over so very many adolescents. We understand that isolation is especially traumatic for this stage of child development.
Yet, what we may have missed noticing is that, for many youth, inside that isolation, their maturity was being structured and formed. While they felt the pressure of difficult academic learning and the darkness of social isolation, it broke something within. Those knowledgeable about adolescent development feared for their well-being. Yet, what we could not see was the re-organization of internal structure that was taking place in the darkness. Now that they are seeing a glimmer of light, the transformation is apparent.
The saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, may actually be true for many of these young people. In my client’s case, together we discovered that she is breaking out of her cocoon right now, and seeing just a crack of the light coming in. Like so many others, she is beginning to realize that, while encased in darkness, she has grown a pair of wings!
Written by Melanie McLeain, LMSW