For older teenagers, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruption during a key stage in the transition to adulthood. Typically, this age group would be becoming more independent and autonomous and would be planning for their future and taking steps towards this; sitting exams; starting new educational programmes; entering the workforce. This year, their experiences have been very different.
In The TELL Study (Teenagers’ Experiences of Life in Lockdown), we explored subjective experiences of lockdown among older teenagers (aged 16 to 19 years), with a particular emphasis on their wellbeing and coping. We used a qualitative approach to gain a rich, nuanced understanding of these experiences. In May 2020, 109 UK-based 16- to 19-year-olds anonymously wrote about what lockdown looked like for them, what it felt like, and how they were managing it. Here’s what they told us.
Teenagers told us that lockdown has been an emotional rollercoaster, bringing intense, difficult feelings.
“I have been feeling a wide range of emotions throughout the lockdown so far, my main emotion has been sadness.”
Lots of things were prompting these emotions, including feeling overwhelmed, trapped, isolated, fearful about and COVID-19. Some explained that specific challenges made lockdown harder, like existing mental health difficulties or family bereavement due to COVID-19. Participants were working to take care of themselves, but that this hasn’t always been easy.
Teenagers described loss, change, and uncertainty. Daily life was suddenly different; they’d lost their routine, their sense of purpose, their independence, and their friends. They talked often about missing out on “normal” teenage experiences.
“I missed out on a proper ending to school, my exams that I worked so hard for, all the traditions I had anticipated over the last five years just taken from me so quickly!”
Many were worried about the future, particularly about getting lower grades and fewer prospects for employment.
However, there have been positives. Alongside difficult feelings, many also experienced positive feelings and were trying to stay positive and hopeful. They felt lockdown provided relief from normal life and has brought opportunities for growth, where they could learn to enjoy their own company, evaluate what they want out of life, learn new skills, and deepen bonds with others.
“I have felt the most de-stressed ever. No pressure to complete schoolwork or wear the right thing or say the right thing.”
Feeling connected has been important. Positive, supportive relationships with family and friends made lockdown easier, although many missed having face-to-face time with people outside their household, felt lonely and isolated, or experienced significant conflict in their households. This is backed up by UCL’s research that looked at the impact of Covid-19 on loneliness.
“If I feel lonely I know my best friend can help as we listen to each other and he makes me laugh.”
Feelings of community, of “we’re all in this together” also helped. However, some didn’t think the government was handling the pandemic well and this made teenagers worry about the safety of themselves and others.
What can these findings tell us?
Lockdown has brought challenging emotions and feelings of loss and uncertainty, but it has also brought relief and an opportunity to explore oneself. So, older teenagers have experienced both unease and growth, and those things have not been mutually exclusive (even if they sound it).
As restrictions continue, opportunities for teenagers to openly share their feelings will be important. Talking about positive aspects like hope for the future may be helpful, although this shouldn’t happen at the expense of acknowledging difficult feelings. It may help to reflect with teenagers on how they approach self-care and coping (especially as restrictions and uncertainty appear to be with us for some time), identifying what’s working and finding additional solutions where needed.
We need to avoid disadvantage for our younger generations. Exam cancellations and the economic decline has created fear and uncertainty. Increased career support and guidance provision may help teenagers feel more in control, and youth employment schemes may limit both economic and wellbeing impact.
As schools, colleges, and universities move forward this academic year, wellbeing needs to be prioritised just as much as academic “catching up”. Indeed, the relief our participants described shows how pressurising “normal” teenage life can be. This may be a critical moment to reflect on how much we ask of teenagers, and to consider how we can give them space to rest, make their own decisions, and explore how they want to spend their time.
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