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Teens Making Meaning: A Lesson from The Shawshank Redemption

Mother and daughter laughing

By Deborah Walsh Dobbs, M.A. | Contributor

Last year, the movie The Shawshank Redemption (based on Steven King’s novella) made a comeback. Set inside a prison, the plot includes a sufficient amount of darkness and suffering, but it consistently returns its focus to friendship and hope. The audience witnesses how a few prisoners not only adapt but also add meaning to their existences inside Shawshank Prison. Brooks takes care of a baby crow and feeds him maggots found in prison food. Another named Red is a prison fixer, obtaining cigarettes, posters or virtually anything a prisoner wants from the outside world. Andy Dufresne persuades the warden to let him create a library. 2020 was a good year for The Shawshank Redemption’s comeback.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to compare our society’s response to COVID-19 as imprisonment, we’ve indeed had to adapt and we’ve lost some freedoms we took for granted.

Although a vaccine has been released, there’s still no clear end in sight. 

During the lockdowns and drastic mandates, social media became filled with posts about new hobbies. Baking bread was a popular one. I bought a banjo that I still play badly. If you know a teen, you might have noticed that over the last ten months, he or she has done a few things that might seem odd or at least out of the ordinary, like rearranging the furniture in their room multiple times, requesting new color schemes or new hairstyles, or organizing closets or pantries. They might have paid more attention to their surroundings and created a new vibe in their spaces, like burning candles or incense and playing calming music. These activities weren’t simply cures for boredom. They added meaning to our lives. While the enthusiasm seems to have waned, the value of making meaning hasn’t.

Adolescence is a time for strengthening independence and leaning more on friends than parents.

The pandemic has thwarted a natural stage in development, and many teens have been robbed of a normal teenage experience. Nevertheless, they still have the freedom to choose what they will take from these difficult times. Making meaning isn’t looking at the bright side of a bad situation. Rather, it’s determining what you can and will make out of it. Making meaning isn’t the same as finding one’s life purpose, either. (I didn’t see any pandemic bread bakers quit their jobs to launch a bread company.) The method can be subtle or grand, predictable or unexpected. It might emerge through trial and error.

Everyone makes meaning differently, so be careful about pushing ideas on someone (including yourself).

An assignment or suggestion might inspire or plant a seed, but making meaning emerges organically and naturally.

How can you help your teen make meaning?

If your son or daughter communicates freely and openly with you, simply ask them about any new interests or ideas. You also can invite them to join you in a hobby or interest, if only to start a conversation. Understand that it’s normal for a teen to decline the invitation, but it opens the door for a conversation about what they like to do or would like to try. If a conversation isn’t natural, you can simply pay attention for clues. If you notice your teen displays an interest in something old or new, encourage it. (Of course, don’t get too enthusiastic, or you risk “ruining it” altogether!) Lots of teens are sick of technology (thanks to online school), and they crave tangible things. Many have taken a liking to “old-school” activities, like vinyl records, jigsaw puzzles and making friendship bracelets. Try introducing new things into the environment, like board games, art supplies, paint-by-numbers, airplane model kits, sidewalk chalk, or a basketball or a skateboard. Just set the item in plain sight and wait to see what happens. You might have a Brooks in the family who would enjoy a bird feeder outside his window. Maybe you have a Red, who could track the inventory in your pantry and handle the grocery shopping (or make the lists). If you have an Andy Dufresne, she could make an item of furniture out of all the books she has read during the pandemic. 

The pandemic feels never-ending, and its impact ranges from intense grief to chronic boredom. As parents, we might feel weary, fed-up, or helpless. We can’t fix it for our teens. We can’t return to them what they’ve missed or lost. When it comes to making meaning out of this mess, we can’t do it for them, either. However, we can offer our sons and daughters opportunities to explore how they will make meaning for themselves. 


Deborah Walsh Dobbs is a sociologist with 21 years of experience at The Counseling Place, a non-profit agency dedicated to strengthening emotional health in people of all ages.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin and her Master of Arts from the University of North Texas. Deborah is a self-described lover of food, whiskey and wine.  She is also proud to be a mother, wife, non-profit leader and writer. Reach her at 469.283.0242 or counselingplace.org.

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