Eleven months into the global COVID-19 pandemic and the statement, “we are living in unprecedented times,” has become commonplace and cliché. But, truth is at the root of this clichéd phrase. Finding and feeling our way through this new reality has been fraught with stark and opposing responses; from being immobilized and stuck, to being re-inspired and productive. As an educator and counselor who has been working with tweens, adolescents and adults in the community, I have witnessed both responses, or states of being, which are completely understandable and interchangeable as minutes turn into hours, as hours turn into days, as days turn over into weeks, and weeks turn into months.
For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on how the tweens and adolescents I work with have acknowledged that, while living life through COVID-19 is extremely tough, they have found, as the late Maya Angelou phrased it, “rainbows in the clouds” during this period. It is important to acknowledge the challenges youth face, such as experiencing restrictions to peer group interactions and experiencing the change of their schooling to remote learning. Further, an important yet more general challenge youth have faced is that the developmental stage these tweens and adolescents are in is typically punctuated by healthy detachment from their families and, in turn, usually is a period where more independence is fostered. This has been halted, interrupted and/or confused, as COVID-19 has demanded that youth are at home with their parents and families.
My overarching teaching and therapeutic philosophy is to meet the individual where they are. I try to listen to their spoken and unspoken language without handing out a quick fix. I am interested in how individuals, especially tweens and adolescents, connect with themselves as their lives have slowed down, as they have retreated to bedrooms, and in-person interactions and experiences have reverted to screens and the virtual world.
To facilitate a way into the interiority of my clients, I use the modalities of expressive arts therapies, contemplative writing and mindfulness practices. In the sessions I hold with them, they commiserate on how life is for them; grieving the smaller and larger losses and disappointments they have experienced; they freely use the session to rant and complain, and share their fears and anxieties. I then work with them in various creative and expressive modalities, which has enabled them to clarify, settle, discover and deepen a connection to their mind, body and heart.
Conducting expressive art exercises on secured video has been a poignant and immediate process. Using the shared-screen option, tweens and adolescents have been able to create and present their creations in real time. Expressive art therapies have encouraged self-discovery and enabled youth to access a range of emotions and insights that many of them did not even know they were experiencing. Engaging in exercises such as “what is in my heart?,” “draw a place,” “shape of me” (for which they can attach photos) have lowered stresses and anxieties, assisted in attention span and focus, and created an emotional uplift and emotional awareness. In these stressful, highly anxious times, expressive arts therapies have assisted greatly in calming, centring and linking youth to both their interior selves and the larger landscape of their lives, despite the uneasy and ongoing pandemic landscape.
Contemplative writing is a compassion practice that encourages one to write whatever the mind has to offer. It is a modality that helps to access who we are, what we need and what we want. It is an embodied practice that allows connection of one’s head, heart, body, breath and the page. Individual contemplative writing sessions have enabled youth to listen fully to themselves and the stories they need to tell and share. It has enabled youth to be listened to and, furthermore, to understand their own insights and often non-realized thoughts. I often tell my clients: tell your stories, I will hold your words and the spaces between them. The modality of contemplative writing has allowed youth to gain confidence and feel empowered, as they accessed and used their own voices, and overall experienced a sense of agency through their writing, telling and sharing of stories.
Throughout my sessions, in conjunction with expressive arts therapies and contemplative writing, I often employ various mindfulness practices. The general aim of mindfulness is also to connect with oneself. For tweens and adolescents, who are used to, even in COVID-19, a fast-paced, pop-up, manic existence with multiple devices in reach of their hands and gazes, mindfulness offers a sharp departure. The frenzied pace of day-to-day life often increases anxiety and depression in young people. It needs to be said that, often, the anxiety and depression is more of a low-grade malaise that we are unaware of until we begin to practise mindfulness.
Generally, mindfulness involves slowing down, delving into a deeper breath, noticing and following through into various practices to relax the mind and body. With tweens and adolescents, I also invoke the senses, encouraging them by carrying out exercises that use guided imagery and engagement of the five senses. This sensory engagement includes holding and touching various objects and taking time to peel and eat (taste) an orange. In the slowing down, in the distillation to being in the moment, in the focus of breath awareness and sensory awareness, I have found youth to become more relaxed, receptive and connected. Once they have practised mindfulness, it serves as a useful and cushioning tool whereby youth are able to calm and centre themselves as they navigate their day-to-day lives.
Dr. Abby Wener Herlin holds a doctorate degree from the University of British Columbia. She is the founder of Threads Education and Counselling and works with tweens, adolescents and adults. She carries out themed social justice and creative arts and writing workshops for students, teachers and schools. She is available for therapeutic sessions and contemplative writing workshops. She can be reached at [email protected] or via threadseducation.com. This article was originally published on health-local.com.