Teenage brains work differently than adult brains. Developing independence and freedom is one of the central parts of being a teenager, and at the same time they’re also relying on the impulse areas of their brains rather than the decision-making areas of their brains. Combined, that means they are much more focussed on living for today, having fun, testing boundaries and exploring their identity then they are following rules. It’s completely normal that they focus on these things, and begins to explain why they might find lockdown so hard.
Children and young people have told us the main reasons that they are struggling with lockdown are:
Missing social contact – Imagine seeing your friends every day and then suddenly not being able to spend time with the people that closest to you
Missing peer support – Because young people are more likely to talk about their problems with other young people, they may feel like their support network has been taken away
Lack of personal space – Young people with younger siblings might feel relied upon to pick up some of the caring duties and keep younger children occupied, which can make teenagers feel stuck with no personal space
Getting away from family arguments – The stress of lock down is tough for parents as well, who may be feeling more stressed or arguing more. This may increase young people’s need to get out of the house
Too much focus on school work – As well as lessons, at school teenagers also have time to run around, be creative, hang out with their friends, laugh and joke with teachers. All of the things that make school enjoyable, fun and engaging are not there when they’re schooled from home. Letting your teenager have regular fun breaks and enabling them to connect with friends will help.
Missing out – It’s hard to comply if other young people are breaking the rules and meeting up. The summer is what they have been waiting for: the end of school, their prom, long weeks of freedom. Having all of it cancelled and having nothing to replace it can be really difficult for them to accept.
Not affected – Young people may feel like COVID-19 isn’t going to affect them. They are young and not likely to get seriously ill, so it’s hard to understand the wider societal impacts that breaking the lockdown rules might have.
Young love – Teenage relationships can feel intense and like they’re the most important thing in the world, but can also often feel fragile and can be quite a rollercoaster. This can be a reason for young people to feel they need to escape the house.
Feeling anxious and stressed – Everyone’s mental health will be affected by changes in routine, sleep, exercise, food patterns and more, and teenagers may be leaving the house to stop themselves lashing out or getting upset.
Feeling scared and threatened – Some teenagers may be being exploited by peers or adults outside of the home and may be scared of what will happen if they don’t go and meet them. Some may feel scared and threatened within their homes – there may be domestic abuse or child abuse occurring – and are escaping harm by leaving the house.
How should I approach it?
The first thing to do is to have an open conversation, without getting angry, and talk to your child about why they are struggling to stay inside. That way you can look together for solutions that would help alleviate the situation. Sometimes teenagers find it easier to talk to other adults and not their parents about this. If a child has a favourite aunt or grandparent that they would rather talk to, then this may be the right place for them to get some help.
Things that don’t help
Making a huge issue out of it will not help the situation. Threats rarely work, and in fact it can often alienate and anger teenagers, making things worse.
Teenagers have found the following things the most unhelpful methods of approaching the issue:
Threatening to call the police – this makes teenagers feel like you don’t care about how they are feeling and how hard it is for them
Claiming that they will get fines/arrested – these sort of threats can increase their already high anxiety levels
Saying the neighbours will get angry – this makes teenagers feel alienated in their own homes
Threatening or taking their phones and tablets/laptops/games away – this may be their main coping strategy and way of connecting, and will increase their feelings of isolation
Threatening to ground them after lockdown – feeling trapped is the cause of the issue in the first place, so the promise of further isolation will not help
Essentially, anything that is likely to break down communication between the two of you and increase fighting or conflict is probably going to make teenagers want to leave the house even more.
Things that might help
Each child is an individual and it’s important that you listen to the things they are struggling with the most and adapt things within the home to help them manage their responses.
Things that teenagers have said help include:
Check in regularly to see how they are doing – Intervening early is important. When the situation and relationship gets to a certain level of stress, it can be much harder to decompress
Go for a walk together – Getting outside of the house together is a good way to get the active, as well as connecting with them, or just being quiet together
Help them keep in touch – Organise, or help them to organise, closed social media groups for those people teenagers are closest to
Stay calm when talking about COVID-19 – Explain the dangers of COVID-19 calmly and without sensationalising it. Remind them that there are trustworthy news sources and not to spend too much time researching.
Accept that we can’t control everything – Focus on the important issues and try and manage those
Give them space - Make sure your child gets some confidential private space when they’re at home, as well as time away from siblings or elderly family members
As lock down relaxes, renegotiate young people’s options for leaving the house
Reward them for complying – Small fun treats or start a little fund of money saved to do something fun
Have something to look forward to – Plan something big, like a party, celebration, day out or weekend away at the end of all of this
Try not to over rely on them – While everyone has their jobs within the family, try not to over rely on them occupying younger siblings, for example. And if they do agree to help with them, acknowledge and reward their efforts.
Have fun - Make time to do fun things as a family, whatever that looks like for you
Try and stick to some kind of routine – It’s worth repeating: trying to maintain a normal sleep, food, exercise, school work, free time and family time routine will help things not feel so chaotic. Healthy eating and sleeping routine are also important for their overall physical and mental health.
Increase your child’s trusted circle – Meaning, make sure they still have contact with extended family or other important people in their lives. Think about who your child goes to with their issues and problems. This is someone who cares about your child's safety, who offers good practical advice, who recognises how hard it is and who can help them think about some good solutions.
Make sure they know support lines they can use to talk to someone - For example, Childline offers counselling services. Let them know you won’t be mad if they choose to use those support lines instead of talking to you.
Help them develop different coping strategies – home exercise, cooking, relaxation techniques. Talk to them about the things they find relaxing and encourage them to take part in them.
Keep connected – Catching up and staying connected with friend apps such as Houseparty, Facetime, Zoom and Online games can be great, but also make sure to talk to teenagers about their safety online. Let them know that they can talk to you if they are worried about anything online.
Sometimes teenagers and young people will break the rules – it’s not the end of the world. Lots of us may be going out for that extra walk or doing that extra non-essential shop, going out for a drive to keep our sanity and teenagers are no different.
If they are going out then help them to do it safely by:
Talking about their safety when they’re out – teenagers may be approached by adults who may be confrontational about them being out of the house. Help them to develop non-conflict ways of managing this, and remind them to keep their phone close and charged
Remembering there are less safe adults out and about, and help them think about how they might get help in an emergency
Maintaining social distance – Talk about how they might see their friends while still socially distancing from each other, keeping 6ft between them. Explain that others in the community will be worried about their own health – while your teenagers may not be concerned about their own health, remind them that others will be and they should social distance and respect others space
Don’t overreact – When your child does come home, don’t overreact or bombard them with questions. Be glad they are home and remember it’s an opportunity to try again. Run them a bath or start the shower, wash their clothes and encourage them not to have physical contact with others until cleaned up.
Know your support lines – If you think your child is being pressured to be out by friends or by people who are threatening them, then you can call the NSPCC helpline for parents. They can talk to you about what you can do to keep your child safe.
Most importantly, please remember that you are not failing as a parent if your child is still going out. It doesn’t mean your child is failing either. This is a difficult time for everyone, and there will be many other parents finding it difficult. Maybe check in with mumsnet or other parenting forums to get support and share strategies.
Remember, it’s not going to last forever and we will get through this.
For further information about Coronavirus, you can visit our Coronavirus Advice Hub. We regularly add new articles and links for both adults and young people dealing with mental health, family activities, wellbeing and more.