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The Big Reveal

After our first post-Covid mental health week, how are our youngsters faring?

I was struck recently by the number of teenagers who are still wearing masks in the street, almost five months after the government removed the recommendation on wearing face masks in the classroom in England.   Some of them may well be vulnerable, but not all, and it made me think about teenagers and the stage of life they are going through.

For some teenagers, wearing a mask became a comfortable space of privacy where they were not judged ‘for the expression on their face’, for that morning’s crop of spots or for the braces on their teeth.  Teachers have reported that some teenagers in their tutor groups said they prefer to continue wearing masks because it makes them feel safe. 

That particular stage between childhood and adulthood is an interesting one: we value the opinion of our peers more than that of our parents; we are testing waters of adulthood whilst being still half-submerged in the safe pond of childhood; we fear being judged above all things.  And so we hide, as we try on different personae (the wild child, the bookworm, the cool dude) to see which one is us. Exposure is vulnerability, like the butterfly still wrapped in its chrysalis.  For a few others, that need to hide might be indicative of more deep-seated fears, where the mask is only a symptom.  In those cases, talking with a professional psychotherapist can help teenagers to uncover and understand the fears.

Because teenagers are pushing us away in order to separate from us, claiming their independence and learning to couple with another, it is easy to forget that they still notice – and mimic – what adults do, and not what they say.  If you have an emotional vocabulary, theirs will grow.  If you have down-time, they will have down-time.  If the adults around them are too absent, they will turn to others for guidance, or they will turn inward.  This may be helpful to them, or it may be they don’t find enough adult resources within themselves to keep them safe.  The traditional end-of-day regathering of the family around food is where teenagers have a sense of containment; the anxiety they are trying to hide in order to look adult subsides naturally, without anyone exposing their vulnerability.  The older generation are simply that – they soak up the anxiety of the day because they have been there before.  However, if the adults are themselves too anxious, they have to work harder to make this happen. 

Too often we communicate our feelings without explaining why we are in a particular state of mind.  So teenagers are likely to mimic our feelings without knowing why.  Sometimes we don’t give our reasons because we are trying to protect them, but this can backfire.  With the best will in the world we can over-protect them.   But if we cannot communicate the reasons why we feel the way we do, teenagers – and indeed anyone else around us – will assume the feelings they see in us are because of something they may have done and are not aware of.  So they might blame themselves for our sadness at the illness of someone close, our frustration that our work is not going well, that we are fighting with our other half, and become sad themselves without knowing why.

There are other unexpected consequences of the last two years of mask wearing, such as youngsters who find it difficult to ‘read’ expressions or to speak in more than monosyllables.  In time, they will relearn these skills and rediscover their confidence.  In the meantime, how can we help?  In every case, be alert to their fears and their need for privacy whilst trying to keep open the channels of communication (not always easy); be aware of how they communicate best – some like to talk, others like to do stuff together – walk, play games – and yet others play music that suits their mood.  And above all, be alert for that ‘golden moment’ when they are ready to communicate.  Because if you are not prepared to listen at that moment, you might miss the Big Reveal.