“I barely interact with people and I’m always cooped up inside the house.”
“For me [a challenge] is just being social again. Like when I didn’t see nobody, it was like, now I don’t feel like talking to anybody anymore. So…, when somebody talks to me,…I don’t want to talk back.”
“My heart drops thinking about COVID because I know I won’t be able to experience the college experience I would have had if COVID wasn’t there.”
Like youth development agencies across the country, Wyman teams quickly pivoted youth program delivery from in-person to virtual as the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. As we adjusted our efforts and worked to meet youth needs, we knew that hearing directly from teens about their experiences and the impact of the pandemic was essential.
Through focus groups and surveys, nearly 300 teens shared their experiences, with approximately two-thirds of surveyed youth reporting the most substantial impacts on their feelings of connection to others, their feelings of connection to school, and their hopefulness about the future. Teens shared that COVID-19 was increasing levels of stress, anxiety and loneliness, and they repeatedly described a craving for continued connection to Wyman programs and, in particular, to their Wyman peers.
The experiences described by Wyman teens mirror findings highlighted from several recent national youth surveys about the pandemic’s impact on youth well-being. From national data, it is clear that, as a result of the pandemic, many of our nation’s young people are facing an educational and mental health crisis—they are disconnected from peers and school, they feel depressed, and they are worried about their health, well-being and futures. And, the teens’ responses reinforce a uniquely human truth about effective youth programs – they are built on a foundation of caring and consistent relationships and connections.
The Power of Connections
While we are living in unprecedented times, the power of connections and healthy relationships is not unprecedented. Connection to others is so foundational to healthy development and overall well-being, we may not fully appreciate its power, and may often take it for granted. This time of crisis reminds us of the critical nature of connection and the potential harm that can be done when it is absent. External evidence and our own experience informs us that:
- Social isolation and lack of social connections can drastically affect well-being and health. A recent study shows long-term positive impacts of connection on well-being : higher levels of connectedness as a teen were related to as much as a 66% lower risk in areas of mental health, violence, sexual risks, and substance use in adulthood. Study authors recommend positive youth development activities as a key way to promote connections, and to reduce the risks for chronic stress, and the onset of chronic health conditions.
- Youth programs focused on connections lead to positive outcomes. Wyman’s Teen Connection Project (TCP), for example, is designed specifically to enhance the quality of peer relationships. A rigorous study of TCP conducted by Dr. Joe Allen and colleagues (2020) showed that participating youth reported significantly increased quality of peer relationships, compared to youth who were not in the program. At a 4-month follow-up, TCP participants also displayed higher levels of academic engagement and social coping, and lower levels of depressive symptoms.
- Relationships with caring and trusted adults make a difference for youth. Youth who perceive their adult program facilitators as supportive, accepting and caring are more likely to show decreased academic risk behavior (e.g., failing grades, suspensions) and improvements in social and emotional learning at the end of the program. These findings from over 3,000 youth who participated in Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program nationwide add to the existing literature suggesting that strong, supportive adult-youth relationships provide a foundation for promoting positive youth outcomes.
A Call to Action
Both now, and when the pandemic has passed and we return to in-person interactions, our nation’s youth deserve the supports and opportunities to develop connections and healthy relationships with one another and with adults. Now and in the future, we can most effectively support youth by:
- Prioritizing relationships and utilizing staff practices proven to support youth. Even in virtual learning spaces, relationship cultivation, support, and development can occur through intentional relationship-building experiences. Preparing Youth to Thrive: Promising Practices for Social and Emotional Learning identifies specific staff practices as key to successfully supporting youth’s social and emotional development. Examples include providing structure for check-ins to actively listen to and receive feedback from youth, and coaching youth in real time as they experience challenges. Training the adults who work directly with youth to recognize and utilize proven practices enhances relationships, and provides teens with stronger social and emotional supports.
- Delivering programs or activities specifically designed to nurture and develop healthy connections. A series of well-sequenced activities, for example, are used in Wyman’s Teen Connection Project to gradually support the development of deeper, more trusting relationships. Youth responses to programs such as TCP remind us of the value they bring.
- Supporting the adults, too. Supporting the emotional well-being of staff can help minimize burnout. Staff members are also living through this challenging crisis – supporting themselves and their loved ones in addition to youth. Targeted trainings can enhance staff feelings of preparedness to deliver virtual programming and to support youth through the challenges the pandemic presents. Staff who are supported to grow professionally can be more energized and present for the relationship work with young people.
Once we move past the pandemic and return to more typical ways of interacting with one another, we may begin to take the importance of connections for granted again. As youth serving professionals, we are called to recognize that healthy connections truly are the foundation of growth and healing, and a path to helping our youth find hope about their futures.
“I was able to open up in this group and get to know others I normally wouldn’t speak to in the halls or class.”
“I was able to learn more about my peers and we all got a little closer; I was also able to be myself.”
Wyman is a proud partner of the Susan Crown Exchange’s SEL Challenge. This article was written as a guest blog for the Susan Crown Exchange (https://scefdn.org/) and can be found on their website, Guest Blog from Wyman Center: A Focus on Connections – Now, and Beyond the Pandemic.