From angry outbursts to not washing, parents share their teenagers’ mental health struggles in lockdown
Article By: Claudia Tanner
Article By: Claudia Tanner
A recent survey of home-schooling parents found three-quarters report their children are now more demotivated or disengaged
Adolescence can be an emotional rollercoaster at the best of times. These years are a period of intense growth, physically and emotionally, when youngsters naturally grapple with finding their identity and place in the world.
Throw in a global pandemic that’s disrupted life as we know it, and many teenagers are really struggling.
Now, in addition to the usual challenges, they’re having to face repeated school closures, isolation from friends, being stuck indoors with parents, and difficulties with online learning – for much longer than anyone anticipated.
Teens in lockdown are battling all this before they are fully equipped to process emotions and develop emotional resilience.
And while in the summer being able to get outdoors was mood boosting, the cold days and shorter daylight hours are keeping us inside more, which doesn’t help any of us.
A Mumsnet survey of home-schooling parents reports that three-quarters said their children were now more demotivated or disengaged.
Some concerned about their teen’s behaviour consider the effects to be just temporary – or they hope they are. Others are extremely worried about a long-term impact and fear the pandemic may be creating a generation with mental health issues.
‘My daughter gets angry really easily and very rarely gets dressed or washed’
Sarah* said her 14-year-old daughter Katie*, who she’d describe as previously “fairly happy-go-lucky”, is struggling more with the second shutdown of schools. “She very rarely gets dressed or washed most days and hides under the duvet, and homework has been a write-off,” she said. “During the early stage of lockdown I was only really worried about her school work suffering, and I still am, but I’m more worried about her mental wellbeing now.
“She’s missing her friends and freedom and she gets angry really easily. She’s punched walls and thrown items at the wall. There’s an outburst on a weekly basis over nothing and a couple of times she’s threatened to self harm. She barely interacts with the rest of the family at all now whereas she always sat down for meals with us.”
Sarah says it’s challenging to know how to parent during these times. “I would usually be quite firm before on the odd occasion she acted up and ground her or take away access to her devices, but we’re unsure if we should come down firm with her out of fear of pushing her over the edge. But if you’re too soft then you worry you’re enabling the behaviour. I battled with her to keep up with her homework and it was causing so many fights I’ve kind of given up, and I worry that isn’t the right thing to do.”
‘My socially-anxious son is even more withdrawn’
Single father Alan* says his 15-year-old son Mark* was showing signs of social anxiety before the pandemic, and fears the pandemic is having an exacerbating effect. “I wasn’t overly concerned about Mark before, he was shy and awkward but so was I at his age and I later developed my confidence and became a fairly relaxed adult. So I figured he’d blossom over time.
“He had started playing football and interacting more, but now I’m really very worried Covid is prolonging and deepening that awkward stage and whether that will really affect his personality. Teens grow in confidence and self-esteem by exploring the world, meeting new people, trying new things, and achieving things and all that development has been arrested.”
Alan has now noticed signs of increasing withdrawal from interacting with people. “I’ve brought him up to always say please and thanks and he’s stopped doing that in shops.
“We went for a walk the other day and I’m pretty sure he pretended not to see a lad he knows who he would normally say hi to.
“Despite having advanced technology, this generation don’t seem to pick up the phone to each other for a phone or video call. His life now is just video games – playing along with his mates – and social media which isn’t real interaction.”
Alan said Mark is also increasingly anxious about his GCSE grades. “As things stand, exams are cancelled and there’ll be teacher-assessed grades. There’s talk of mini exams at home. But Mark, and I can totally understand as I feel the same, doesn’t trust the government after the algorithm fiasco, chaos and u-turns last year.
“Thankfully he is putting in the time studying but he’s getting worked up thinking that every piece of work he does is detrimental to his grades and that’s a lot of pressure to feel under.”
‘Falling behind at school is causing my daughter anxiety’
Emily*, 16, is struggling with online lessons, gets stressed and often bursts into tears over things she can’t figure out.
“My daughter says it’s not easy to follow what’s happening in the Zoom lessons and she isn’t very outspoken so isn’t asking for help,” said her mother Jade*. “She feels awkward speaking up on a video call when she doesn’t understand something and afterwards I encourage her to ask her teachers but they’re busy with other lessons and not always available. She gets so het up about falling behind she sobs and sobs.”
Her mother Jade* is concerned the anxiety over her education may be fuelling the start of an eating disorder.
“We’ve had issues with her staying up too late so then we’ve encouraged her to stick to a better sleep routine because the lack of sleep was definitely stressing her out more while trying to focus and study.
“When she is tired she was bingeing on fatty, sugary junk food and she put on around a stone. So then she gets stressed thinking she was ‘fat’ and she’s gone the other way and is barely eating anything, which can’t be helping her concentration either. I’m trying to encourage healthy eating patterns but she’s determined to extreme diet. I think she’s generally struggling with a feeling of lack of control.”
How we could move forward
With talk that schools might reopen from 8 March, there may be some relief in sight. But there are mixed feelings about that among the parents we spoke to.
Sarah believes going back to school in person could help stop her daughter’s angry outbursts and threats to self-harm. “I feel we should stay in lockdown to keep Covid under control but kids are suffering too much with their mental health and education to keep schools shut for much longer,” she said.
Alan doesn’t want schools to rush reopening in the pandemic before it is safe, and supports what the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, has recommended that vulnerable children should be prioritised for a return to the classroom rather than the reintroduction of entire year groups which would have a greater impact on Covid transmission rates.
The children’s commissioner has suggested a return to normality by using ‘blended learning’, with children dividing time between home-schooling and class.
“I think even if schools don’t fully reopen, starting up grassroots sport in small groups would give some teens a healthy outlet if outdoors risks can be managed.”
Jade says she accepts schools should stay shut until it’s safe but says most importantly she wants to see better mental health support for youngsters. “I’ve not reached out for help myself but I know parents with really depressed children who are on huge waiting lists with CAMHS.
“I want to hear about what we’re going to do when we come out of this difficult time, how are we going to help young people with any mental health after effects? We need better investment in services.”
* Names have been changed.