4Front’s Samantha Kahan Strakes Talks about Teens and Mental Health


Samantha Kahan Strakes

For those who have been around teens these past two years, they cannot help but notice how difficult life has been. Milestones, like graduation and proms, have been cancelled or revamped, opportunities to get together have shifted and instability seems to be the norm as activities often shift from virtual to live to virtual again.

We took a moment to talk to Samantha Kahan Strakes, who is the co-managing senior director of 4Front Baltimore’s Jewish community-wide teen initiative. Housed at the JCC, 4Front offers a number of teen and parent of teen programs that include Diller Teen Fellows, Social Innovation Fellows, Students Taking Action for Change, Peer Leadership Fellows and Parenting UnPacked. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

We know the pandemic has been difficult for teens. What are you seeing?

Teens have experienced a lot of isolation during COVID-19, and it’s caused more anxiety than we’ve seen in the past. After being virtual and participating in limited activities for a little over a year, teens were back at school and getting together again.

Yet, it hasn’t been easy. Many are struggling with the rules of socialization after being virtual for so long. They are not sure how to act and are often worried about how they are going to fit in. At the same time, families handle the pandemic differently. Some are more strict and some more open. As a result, it adds a layer of tension between parents and teens and additional social anxiety.

I know many teens are feeling a sense of loss because critical milestones have been cancelled?

Teens are feeling that they are missing out on experiences they are supposed to have. And even activities that are scheduled are fraught with anxiety. Earlier in the year, I was speaking with a teen about homecoming, which was being held outdoors. Yet now this teen had something additional to worry about – checking the weather, because if it rained, the event would be cancelled.

Applying to college has become test optional at many schools. Is this helping teens with their anxiety?

Actually, it’s another source of anxiety. They don’t really know how to navigate this new process. It sounds good, but they wonder, is it really optional? If I don’t take the test, will I be penalized?

What is 4Front doing in regards to mental health?

We’ve trained our Peer Leadership Teens, who are engaged in conversations with their peers about Jewish opportunities in the community, to recognize if other teens are struggling. They’ve learned what they should say and when they need to turn to an adult for help. We have also focused on our youth professionals, making sure they are prepared to support teens in our community and providing them with the skills if they need to intervene if they see a mental health crisis.

And for parents?

We felt like parents of teens needed a safe, trusted space to come to and learn from experts and other parents. So, we introduced Parenting Unpacked. Our latest six-part series, PhD in Parenting led by parenting expert Erica Hruby of Anchor Parenting, provides ways for parents to learn how to communicate and support their teens, discuss mental health and more. This series also includes a safe space for parents to hear from other parents about what they are going through. We also offer individual parenting programs on different topics throughout the year.

Anything else?

We are finding that teens don’t have the stamina we are used to. In the past, they were involved in a number of extra-curricular activities. Teens today are setting more boundaries for themselves and paying more attention to how to find a balance in their lives.


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