The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Helping young people make sense of events

Elizabeth Holmes investigates the challenges young people may face in coming to terms with world events and the impact on their lives, and what can be done to help. 

Amidst the seemingly interminable news of viruses, strains, mutations, vaccinations, economic shocks and industries and sectors left in tatters, we could be forgiven for feeling despondent and worse about what we hear on the TV, radio and through social media.

As adults, we draw on our resilience, our ability to contextualise what we hear and our hope that brighter days will come. It can be a challenge some days, easier on other days, and we can aim to accept that this, too, shall pass, even though our mental health may take a bashing.

The uncertainty for the future that is broadcast all around on a daily basis can be deeply unsettling

Our approach to the significant and multiple difficulties that the country is experiencing at the moment will be influenced by our experiences of life to date. Even then it can be understandably hard to maintain equilibrium.

For young people, however, the sudden changes in their lives and the uncertainty for the future that is broadcast all around on a daily basis can be deeply unsettling. Making sense of these events, in a way that empowers and gives hope, is challenging, and possibly not something we should expect of young people without giving time and space to support.

Contagious moods

Recent findings from research Sharing the load: Contagion and tolerance of mood in social networks (PsycNET undertaken by Oxford and Birmingham Universities has shown that teenagers catch moods from one another and that negative moods are more contagious. Researcher Dr Block: ‘Our study shows conclusively that individuals are affected by how others around them are feeling. Mood is contagious, and though both positive and negative moods are “caught”, bad moods are more potent.’

All of this perhaps points to the need for a carefully nuanced approach to supporting young people in making sense of the global events in these troubled times.

Making sense and different perspectives

Chartered psychologist Dr Pam Jarvis feels that it is important to remember that we will all be making different sense of it from our own position on our life trajectories. ‘We can help young people by teasing out what they are thinking and validate it. The big issue for teenagers is being dismissed by adults in that “well it looks like that to you, but you don’t know…” when in fact they do know what they know, from the perspective of their own lives.’

I’m actually very optimistic about the young millennials, as a generation

Dr Jarvis suspects that for the average teenager Covid-19 may present as a rather more enduring drama than it actually will be, ‘although, granted, it is a pretty big one… They tend to live in the “now” rather more than adults; it’s difficult for them to find the perspective on what is coming next, because their experience of times changing is rather limited.

'But at the same time, they are also inclined to have a perception of invulnerability as far as they, themselves are concerned; that really is a “teenage brain” thing, although the phrase IS over-used.’

Reasons to be cheerful

‘As night follows day,’ Dr Jarvis said, ‘people like Greta Thunberg will grow up, and move onto the world stage. And Amanda Gorman, who read her powerful poem at Biden’s inauguration. The world will be theirs, and they will then decide what to do with it. I wish my generation had left a better legacy, but it is what it is.

‘I’m actually very optimistic about the young millennials, as a generation. I don’t think they are snowflakes at all. I think they are flexible, that they “bend” better than their elders, which of course underpins the strongest structures of all. And there will be so much potential for innovation post-covid. Maybe one phrase baby boomers can bequeath to them is “and still, we rise?”’

Managing the news

Art student Rachel Usher offers useful insights on how young people are making sense of the news they are hearing. ‘During the start of the first lockdown in March 2020 I watched the news almost every day, as everything was so new, and I wanted to have all the information available to try and make sense of what was happening in the world.

'The most significant moment to me was when they announced that our A level exams in June were to be cancelled. It was a huge relief but at the same time scary as it made the pandemic feel real rather than a momentary blip in our reality. After a few months I stopped watching the news as much as it just felt like a constant repetition of negativity.

‘I actually think that now I get a lot of my news (especially global news) from Instagram accounts such as The Guardian, ChicksforClimate, freeda_en and the_female_lead. They generally post very uplifting, positive news about activism movements and the people behind them. I realise that this arguably creates an online echo chamber of news that I already agree with, and am therefore not hearing anything that challenges my views.

'But these accounts teach me about things that I wouldn’t necessarily hear about on televised news channels. For example, there was a lot of talk about the empowering political meanings behind the outfits chosen and worn by the women at the 2021 US inauguration.’

Five ways to help

We can do more to help young people to face and make sense of the news they encounter. These ideas may help.

  1. Having an over-arching sense of belonging can help people to navigate the challenges in their lives. Giving young people strategies to aid their sense of belonging could provide the bedrock they need to make sense of what is happening to them. Helping them understand that questioning your sense of belonging is a perfectly natural thing to do can be helpful too.
  2. Talk about current affairs. Young people will have heard aspects of what is going on and may be harbouring fears that could be alleviated by open discussion. This does not mean taking political sides, but it does mean not ignoring the very obvious stressors that may be affecting children and young people.
  3. Point them in the direction of useful sense-making resources. Websites such as carry extensive advice on understanding the media and carving a positive path without undue influence of biased resources.
  4. Boost media literacy. Check out Making Sense of Media, Ofcom’s programme to help improve the online skills of UK adults and children.
  5. Flag up disinformation when possible. Use it as an opportunity to champion research, and explain why people may be swayed easily by sensational stories about major events.

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