meIt has never been easy to wake up a teenager in the morning. But behind many of the closed doors to our children’s bedrooms, something is falling apart. During the past spring and summer, parents of older children worried that they were going to celebrate rebels against the confinement. In the dark depths of January, fear is more for the kids with all the stuffing out of them; teens who spend all day huddled miserably under duvets, refuse to complete online lessons, or become mentally distracted.
Illegal teenage parties were, of course, a health risk. But sad, withdrawn, and angry children who prefer to turn around before facing another day in lockdown represent a new medical crisis in the making.
This week, Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield warned that youth mental health services “could not keep up with demand” in a pandemic. Last weekend, a coalition of children’s health experts warned in a letter to the Observer that “the well-being of children has become a national emergency.” But these clinical terms fail to capture what it feels like to have a once light-hearted child who suddenly doesn’t even dress or wash, let alone sit through hours of Zoom lessons, facing a waiting list each. longer time to receive advice.
Fiona Forbes of the September for Schools campaign group, which advocates for education to be prioritized during the pandemic, says the emails she receives from parents are increasingly desperate and scared. “In the summer it was all about juggling: ‘I can’t supervise little kids and try to work.’ Now we get stories every day from children who, as one mother put it, ‘are falling apart before my eyes’. They can’t sleep, they can’t eat, always in pajamas ”.
Unlike the little kids who jump into Zoom conference calls, the distraught 13-year-olds hanging around the house because they can’t sleep are not the subject of cute public anecdotes. But ask parents privately how their children are coping, and the floodgates open.
Michael, whose 12-year-old boy developed OCD after the first confinement, believes that “not finishing elementary school properly, losing friends, and playing sports” were contributing factors to his son’s difficulties. Sarah has three children, the oldest of whom is in his freshman year at university and is frustrated that he cannot return; the youngest, just starting high school, is now visibly stopping learning.
But it is the middle one, in his GCSE year, that worries him the most. He stays up very late, playing with friends, angry and sad. “He’s starting to rage against the world. Nothing makes sense to him anymore. He misses his teachers and friends, ”he explains. “Basically, for the first time since Covid was a word, now I am concerned about the mental health of my children.” Both Sarah and her husband work in education and, as she points out, if they’re not sure how to help, families in more difficult circumstances must have a much worse time. “Every day it kills me to think about the children, the ones I know, the ones my husband knows, who will have such a hard time.”
For parents of children with special needs, meanwhile, life has become doubly difficult. Jane, whose 17- and 13-year-old children are autistic, worries that years of painstaking progress are unraveling. “The mental health of young people is a national emergency.”
Fortunately, the educational offering has improved by leaps and bounds since the last closure, and many state and private schools now offer a full schedule of live lessons, at least for those lucky enough to own laptops. But concern about the emotional impact of months of isolation is increasing with this second school closure, along with new questions about the pressure cooker effect of online learning.
At worst, principals fear that older teens will drop out of school for good. At best, it’s all the drudgery of school without the fun parts. A Mumsnet survey of homeschooling parents found that three-quarters thought their children were now more unmotivated or disconnected.
Jill’s once sunny 8-year-old daughter “approaches her laptop in fear every morning,” having begun to fear the established job online; the teacher isn’t always there to help, so her daughter cries over things she can’t understand. Lucy’s 15-year-old daughter, who should have attended GCSE this summer, is increasingly distraught at not knowing when or how her work will be assessed for the qualifications of teachers now replacing exams. “She told me, ‘I feel under so much pressure all the time because every job I do could count,'” says her mother, who is also concerned that her 13-year-old son is getting sad and withdrawn, missing friends. .
For older teens, biologically driven to yearn for independence, being with their parents is a particular kind of torture. So they bury themselves in games or on Tiktok, where their friends are. But, as any grown-up out of business knows, going overboard on social media simply runs the risk of accelerating a downward spiral.
It must be said that many children will endure all of this without having suffered anything worse than boredom. For those who are very shy or bullied, or children who struggle with mainstream school, staying home can even be a positive relief. And since adolescence is a very difficult journey, perhaps some of these adolescents would have had problems even without the confinement.
But the mental health of children and young people survey conducted last year by NHS Digital found that the incidence of “probable mental health problems” in English aged five to 16 years increased from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020. A quarter of children and young people suffered from sleep disturbances, and one in 10 often or always felt lonely, with the children of struggling parents, financially or otherwise, at greater risk.
Referrals to children’s mental health services decreased during the first closure, when schools were closed. But they woke up in the fall, when teachers were able to look again with experience at the children they cared most about.
This week’s announcement that schools could begin to return as of March 8 offers some relief in sight, then. But almost every parent I spoke to emphasized that they did not want schools to quickly return to the pandemic before it was safe. What they wanted was to be heard and helped.
What is the best way to do it? Longfield wants ministers to accelerate the return to normalcy using blended learning, with children dividing time between homeschooling and class. Opening grassroots sport once it is safe would also give some teens a critical outlet; and some directors are already quietly offering part-time spots for teens for mental health reasons.
But above all, we must prepare for the aftermath of this pandemic, expanding mental health services quickly enough to deal with what arises behind closed bedroom doors. As Jane said, “We have to plan for when people come out of the dark, but we find a lot of young people trapped there.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism