Zach Gottlieb's grandfather died from heart failure the same week his high school moved to remote learning in March 2020.
Zach's dad isn't around, and his grandfather was his chess partner, fellow Lakers fan and confidante. The combination of his death and pandemic isolation hit Zach hard, but so had a lifetime of messages that strong guys don't really grieve -- or if they do, they certainly don't talk about it.
Even as Zach, 16, was processing all that, he was reading post after article after well-intentioned email about young people's mental health, which was already in a precarious place pre-pandemic, and pushed to new lows in the midst of it.
He hopped on Instagram and TikTok and started talking. About his feelings, about his fears, about loneliness.
"My motto became 'We can't change what we don't talk about,'" he said.
He started a website, TalkWithZachOfficial.com, and invited other teenagers to submit questions. His mom, author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, connected him to a handful of other authors and experts in their fields to help answer the questions that started pouring in from all over the country and, eventually, the world.
"There's a lot of things I can't speak about directly -- serious depression and anxiety," Zach said, "dealing with racism firsthand."
Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of "How To Raise An Adult" and "Real American," has hopped on an Instagram Live with Zach. So have entrepreneur Marcus Bullock and parenting writer Jessica Lahey, among dozens of others.
The conversations are wide-ranging, generous, and, I have to imagine, incredibly helpful. They've talked about coming out to your parents, the stress and joy of being a first-generation college student, life as an incarcerated teen, male vulnerability in pop culture, comparing yourself to others on social media.
I often wonder if we adults -- parents, educators, coaches, therapists, even -- are chasing down solutions to the right problems, the problems kids are actually grappling with and not just the ones we imagine they are. I asked Zach if common themes pop up in the questions he receives.
"Appearance, social standing, whether we fit in or how people perceive us, making a mistake and getting canceled," Zach said. "A lot about relationships. Are we being treated well? Do we really like this person? Does this person really like us? How to end a friendship or initiate a relationship. How do we deal with being left out of social things and feeling rejected?"
He said adults tend to tune our antenna toward depression and anxiety, which are, obviously, real concerns. Just not the only concerns.
"Doubts about our self-worth," he continued. "Worries about not having a passion or knowing what path we're on. The gap between what our parents think is important and what really matters to us. A lot of stress, but feeling like everyone else has it all figured out and we're the only ones struggling."
Zach was recently invited to lead workshops at a conference for high school students sponsored by Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University that works to broaden and deepen the definition of achievement for kids, beyond grades and test scores.
"It was great to talk about things like body image or insecurities in our social groups without feeling like we should keep quiet because the issue doesn't seem 'big enough,'" he said. "These are significant issues to teens in our daily lives and they get overshadowed because adults think they're minor compared with serious depression or anxiety. But all of it is important to us."
He said parents underestimate how much their kids crave a close relationship, even though the teen years can be fraught with stressors and shifting identities and bristling at boundaries and all the rest.
"Most teens really want to be close with their parents," he said.
And I think most parents want to be close with their teens. I asked him what he thinks might pave the way for that closeness.
"I think what we really want from our parents is compassion, understanding and support, without minimizing our concerns," he said. "'You only dated for three weeks, you'll get over this.'"
And acceptance -- which I think can sometimes be mistaken for acquiescence. ("So I'm not supposed to parent them?")
"We want them to remind us that they believe in us, that our futures aren't determined by a certain kind of college, that our interests and ideas about what we want might be different from theirs," Zach said. "We also want them to remember that we're still young and we make mistakes, and that instead of shaming us or yelling at us, we want them to help us learn from our mistakes because that's what these years are for."
Indeed. I'm starting to believe that's what all the years are for, honestly. But it feels truer and healthier to mess up and learn and grow and love through it all on the same side -- teammates, rather than rivals.
Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at [email protected], find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens' Balancing Act Facebook group.