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Journaling as self-care for youth

By Sarah Odendahl

A hand writing in Journal
In many ways, COVID-19 has become the central factor in our lives; the virus is defining how and where we work and go to school, how we shop and celebrate special events, and what activities we do in our free time. We hear about COVID-19 each day on the news, see commercials and billboards about prevention, and make daily choices about how best to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Adolescence during the pandemic

While COVID-19 might be the single biggest stressor in adult lives, for youth, especially teens, it is just one of many challenges they face. Adolescence is a time of significant change in physical bodies, brain structure and function, and social interaction. Teens are molding their identities, creating their value systems, and planning for their futures. With or without the pandemic, questions regarding college, careers, romantic relationships, and how they interact with the world around them are ever-present.

Many teens need extra guidance and tools to help  them work through this, which is a key role youth development educators can play. Journaling is a tool we can use to help teens in this work, while building resilience, gaining perspective, and exploring new interests. Journaling can take on many different forms, inviting teens with different interests and talents to express themselves. Journaling is also an easily accessible method of self-care for teens of diverse socio-economic backgrounds.

Help youth get started

Exposing teens to journaling can be done one-on-one or in a trusting and safe group setting. University of Missouri Extension offers a guide for journaling with teens that provides tips for guiding youth through journaling experiences as well as writing prompts.

Are you ready to try out a journaling experience at your next youth gathering? Here’s a quick outline to get you started.
  • Gather a variety of supplies. Invite youth to choose their own materials, which can help them feel more comfortable with a new activity. Your supplies could include: lined, unlined, and colored paper; pens, pencils, markers, and colored pencils; scissors, tape and glue.
  • Ask other adults in your group to share about an experience they have had with journaling. Modeling the behavior, and journaling along with youth, can help normalize self-care and make them more open to the activity.
  • Use the Identity Wheel activity from the Center for Youth Development’s Imagining and Navigating Futures in Higher Education guidebook. Their completed identity wheel can be both the first page of their journal and a reflection tool for further journaling.

Where do you imagine that journaling could enhance your youth development programming? If you already use journaling, what are your favorite writing prompts for teens?

-- Sarah Odendahl, Extension educator

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  1. Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. Inspired by my own teen, I've started a' bullet journal' to track and plan for my 2021. I love how journaling supports our social and emotional wellbeing -- as a way to be mindful and self-aware, organize thoughts and feelings, plan and set goals, express gratitude, and manage time and tasks.

    1. Kate, I think that's a great point! Being organized can help buffer a lot of emotions, especially for teens who face a lot of stress through homework and other deadlines.

  2. Sarah, thank you so much for sharing this really tangible strategy for both supporting teens and for helping them care for themselves. I agree that journaling is a powerful, personal tool. It was one of the most important things that helped me work through my own adolescence (and still helps me work through my life and these times!) In a youth program, it is a great way to offer a way for more internal processors to have a space to reflect in a culture that often is dominated by extroverts like me. In working with youth for whom writing might not always be accessible (for example, youth with learning disabilities), offering them to the option to do "voice journals" with a phone's voice memo feature or to draw or collage can be other great ways to engage them. Thanks for lifting this up!

    1. Thank you for sharing the idea of a voice journal! I talked a bit about youth who would choose most artistic way to journal than writing, but spoken word journaling hadn't occurred to me. It could also give youth more control if they have any worries about privacy with a physical journal.

    2. Journaling is a great outlet for me - I have several that I maintain - a writing journal, a life goals journal, and a parenting journal to name a few. Like Kate is becoming, I'm also a BuJo user. I like the simplicity of it (I'm not one for all the fancy artsy spreads), and the focus on keeping myself organized. A few of the parts of my journal that are most important are my habit tracker (tracking personal and professional tasks I want to do each day), and my memory/happiness tracker (recording one memory from each day that I don't want to forget). The narrative on both of these is simple so I don't need to stress on my wording, and I get the satisfaction of crossing things off the to-do list!

      I have a friend that tracks her daily happiness, hours of sleep, foods she ate, exercise minutes, and stress, with simple icons and then does a monthly review to find patterns. For her, it has helped her to know that her mood is impacted by her health and vice versa. I use a simpler version as part of my habit tracking.

  3. In addition to being a means for seeking answers to questions, working through difficulties, organizing thoughts, or exploring interests, journaling, like the 4-H “young writers clubs” in some Minnesota counties (see YD Weekly Aug. 31, 2020), is a way to explore writing itself. Many of us witnessed (and were inspired by) a young writer last week when we heard Amanda Gorman recite her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at the presidential inauguration. (And if we were lucky, we not only heard her, but we also watched her and we listened to her.) Journaling and other types of writing are ways to give youth (and give ourselves) voice.


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