Doug Bolton

World War I. A polio epidemic. The Spanish Flu. The Roaring Twenties. The Great Depression. World War II. Major historical events that Doug Bolton’s grandmother lived through, times that left their imprint on society, the economy and modern medicine. Nonetheless, Bolton said, his grandmother carried on, carving out a life of her own.

“The thing that struck me is I never knew about all these things in her life,” said Bolton, a clinical psychologist and educator who served as a guest speaker, April 21, for River Forest District 90 families. Looking up at the projector screen, he flipped through a stack of black-and-white photos of his family, one of which depicted his grandparents holding their only son, his father. 

“Yet when my parents divorced, she was the one who was there for us. She was the rock. She was the one who was resilient for us,” he recalled.

In the Roosevelt Middle School auditorium, in front of about a dozen parents, Bolton kept returning to that word: “resilient.” What does it mean, especially for today’s youth who are growing up in the COVID-19 pandemic?

Debbie Lubeck, director of student services at D90, said she invited Bolton to the evening event to shed light on an issue that has been top of mind for many. Lubeck said Bolton was to host a similar presentation for staff and faculty the following day.

“When things fall apart, we rebuild. We reconnect, don’t we? And we do it differently,” said Bolton, who was once a principal at North Shore Academy in Highland Park, a school for students with significant emotional and behavioral issues. “Disruption always led to innovation. I hope the same is true for us today. In this time, what will we change?”

In an hour-long presentation, Bolton walked parents through the stages of the pandemic and how it has impacted them, their children, and the world around them. In just two years, people adapted to a series of changes, from first navigating mask mandates and stay-at-home orders to watching everything reopen in full swing.

“We were going to come back, and it was going to be a ‘normal’ school year,” he said of families’ expectations last fall. “And when everybody came back, it’s almost like they tapped us on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, this is a marathon. It’s not a sprint.’”

Bolton noted that youth were experiencing poor mental health even before the pandemic came. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a study over a 10-year period and showed that poor mental health and suicidal behaviors among U.S. high school students had soared from 2009 to 2019. About 37% of students reported they experienced persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, a 10% increase from data pulled in 2009, according to the CDC.

In 2019, the CDC reported LGBTQ+ students were four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers. A breakdown by race showed Black students were more likely to have attempted suicide. And the pandemic has only exacerbated those mental health issues.

“It’s important for us to take a look at what the impact of COVID has been,” he said. The hope is to bring into focus the significance of mental health and wellness.

He offered a breakdown of social-emotional learning (SEL) and talked about the importance of managing stress and other difficult feelings, in parents and children alike. Using a quick exercise, Bolton pulled up a color-coded chart and asked parents how they were feeling at that moment.

“Where are you right now?” he asked. “Are you in the blue zone, and like ‘Oh, my gosh. This is boring already. I can’t believe I came.’ Are you in the green zone? ‘It’s a beautiful day, finally!’ … And then [the] red zone is when you’re to get up and start screaming.”

Taking the moment to acknowledge one’s feelings gives a person the chance to adjust and think about their needs, Bolton said. Do you need to grab a snack, take a pause or check your phone?

“It helps us all be present,” he said.

Stress impacts an individual’s ability to be creative, he added, to listen, to exercise empathy and at times, their memory.

“You have been so upset that you can’t find the words, or sometimes for me, the only words I can find [have] four letters,” Bolton said, eliciting a laugh.

 Throughout the lecture, Bolton circled back to another word: “present.” He reminded parents often that there are no perfect parents, only “present” ones. 

“We don’t have to fix it,” he said, advising the small audience to “hold space” with their children whenever they are working through feelings of frustration, sadness or anger. He noted that may be hard to do, as parents have the quick urge to “solve it now,” and when they can’t, that can lead to arguments.

 “But we have to give time in the moment. It helps to give it time. It always helps to give it time.”

A father himself, Bolton told parents they will make mistakes, especially in front of their children, and that’s OK. What matters is how they work to repair those mistakes and forgive themselves in the process. 

At the close of the presentation, Bolton talked about the upside of COVID, how it reshaped our values, teaching us to slow down and cherish time spent together.

“We need movement. We need to spend more time outdoors. … We function better when we collaborate, when we’re emotionally and relatively connected to one another,” he said. “That we can focus on curiosity, instead of achievement. That we can breathe.”

And while the pandemic has yet to officially end, Bolton offered this last reflection: “You won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure when the storm is really over.”

“One thing is certain: When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person.”

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