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Supporting teenagers during lockdown

Being in lockdown undoubtedly has its challenges. We’ve explored them in our advice hub before: isolation, being unable to pursue regular hobbies and pastimes, uncertainty about the future, missing our friends and family, and many more. What people may not think about as much, however, is how this is affecting teenagers – now, and in the future.

Published on 15 May 2020

Adolescence is a time of extreme growth: physically, emotionally and mentally. Teenagers are learning about who they are through their friends, through pop culture, trying new things, refining their understanding of the world, pushing boundaries and finding their own voice that is separate from their parents and siblings. They’re moving towards the border of adulthood and all the freedom that involves. Where for the first time they were about to experience the excitement and joy of finishing school, starting university or a stable job, travelling alone and adult relationships, they’re now left suddenly without any concrete plans. Understanding what they’re going through might be a key part of helping them during this strange transitional time. 

School and friendships

For years, young people at school have been working towards the finish line – A-Levels or GCSEs, and then for many of them, continuing on to university. On the day before lockdown closed the schools, all the excitement of finishing school was suddenly boiled down to a day. One day to say goodbye to friends, not knowing when they’d be able to see them in person again. One day to thank the teachers who have helped them grow and learn before starting online classes. One day to say farewell to the place they’ve spent every day in over the last few years, and one day to adapt to the idea that there may not be final exams, or that if they do get into university, it may be online.

A lockdown study of 60,000 people by University College London found that 18- to 24-year-old had the lowest levels of life satisfaction. That level of unhappiness and frustration during such an important time in their growth has some academics worried.

Dr Maria Loades is a senior lecturer and clinical psychologist at the University of Bath. She is studying the effect of social isolation and loneliness in young people, and talking to the Guardian said that school leavers in particular will be suffering the loss of all the finalities of leaving school – exams, graduations, parties and the acknowledgement of their teachers and peers that what they were working towards for so many years has finally been achieved.

How can you help?

As always, listening to your teenager’s feelings without judgement or interruption is really important. Their world that was just starting to open up has suddenly gotten very small again, and a friendly ear and a shoulder to cry on is going to be important. If they won’t open up, don’t take it personally - you’ve got time to prove to them that you really are on their side. Allow them time to talk to their friends, whether that’s on the phone, online, or through gaming. Upkeep of these vital relationships will be a lifeline for a lot of teenagers. 

Love and Relationships

Teenage love is an all-consuming thing. With brains developing into their adult form comes a rush of chemicals that make love feel like the most overwhelming emotion possible. All the pleasure chemicals are released, and that is addictive. The depth of the love and care they feel for the other person is more complex than anything they’ve ever felt in the past, and so it stands to reason that they crave the other person and may feel incomplete without them.

Losing the ability to see their partners, where previously they may have seen each other nearly every day, could feel emotionally devastating for teenagers. First love is remembered fondly for a reason, and the trials young people are facing with their experiences of it should be acknowledged as being painful. 

How can you help?

Encourage them to open up about their feelings to you, the good, the bad and the ugly. Share your own experiences of young love, and avoid telling them to just get over it. If their relationship has ended, they’re grieving, and will go through stages of recovery like any other loss. It will take time. Maybe sit down with them and ask them to draw up a list of activities they would like to do, then you can come back to the list when they’re feeling down. Talk to them like adults, because that is what the world was preparing them to become, and that is what they feel like they are.

Interests and hobbies

A lot of parents worry about the new schedules their teenagers are keeping during lockdown. Across the board, staying up late and sleeping in is the new normal. It’s not a new concept that teenage brains need more sleep than children and adults (about 8-10 hours), and run about two hours behind in terms of when they’ll be sleepy. Early morning school starts after their naturally late bedtimes mean that there is an ongoing sleep deprivation, so this time to reset and follow their circadian rhythm isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As important as trying to keep a schedule can be to mental health, having their learning, socialising and studying happen later in the evening isn’t outrageous in terms of their development.  

Gaming can form a part of the later nights, which traditionally has been of concern to parents. What is less understood, however, is the benefits that come with gaming. Social skills like being helpful, cooperative, and selfless. Cognitive skills like visual processing, taking in and analysing information and problem-solving. Critical thinking skills through puzzle solving, decision making and team organisation. Even physical activity through interactive games is possible. 

How can you help?

With their whole life outside of the family home now only being accessible online, it also makes sense that a lot of their time will be spent online. Supervising young people’s internet usage can be vital in protecting them online, so having their consoles or computers in a family space can help with this - for more information, explore our Online Safety hub. Limiting device use during time you’ve all agreed is ‘family time’ (dinner, games, exercise etc) can also encourage a relationship between you to flourish. 

Of course, sleeping all day isn’t good for them. But understanding that the adolescent sleep cycle is different to that of their younger siblings or your own can help you approach the subject with them. 

Family relationships

Because they know you support them no matter what, teens can explode at their families in times of crisis, and sometimes it seems, at times of mere inconvenience. Whilst no one likes being yelled at, yelling back will likely get you nowhere. Counting to 10, or lowering your voice when responding to encourage them to do the same, walking away from the argument or leaving a pause after their outburst can all help to de-escalate a potential fight. 

How can you help?

With their whole world now being contained within the family home, you’ve got a really unique chance to become friends with the adult your teenager is on the verge of becoming. Teenagers appreciate honesty. Don’t pretend to know everything they’re interested in, but do take an interest in it. Don’t pretend your teenage years were all smooth-sailing if they weren’t, but do let them know you’ve been there and to some extent, you get it. Set up a family time you all agree on and have a list you all update for activities to do together.

To engage them during family time, you could ask them questions they don’t expect: how would you survive a zombie apocalypse? What would you take on a desert island? Who would you invite to a dinner party, living or dead? Listen to what they say, and answer honestly yourself. They don’t feel like children anymore, and have lost the immediate company of their peers, so with some openness and patience you could deepen your relationship with your teen.

Ultimately, that empathy, understanding and patience is going to make all the difference, but also be mindful of your own mental and emotional health. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor are adult relationships, and nor are adjustments to life in lockdown. Ensure you have a support network of your own - friends, partners, siblings, parents, co-workers - to help you to help your teenager.

If you’re having trouble with them breaking lockdown restrictions, we wrote about how to help your teenager stay home during the lockdown. For lots of other mental health, wellbeing and activities advice, explore our Coronavirus Advice Hub. 

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