Adolescence in lockdown

Adolescents react, in part, to what they see from the adults around them. When parents and carers deal with the implications of COVID-19 calmly and confidently, they can provide the best support and scaffolding needed to help them get through this time of ‘Quaranteen’. Adolescents need a sense of security and significance. These can be found in family or in friendship groups, which at the moment may be impacted by physical isolation.

Teenagers are so used to connecting with their friends on social media, that for many, things won’t be too different. The real difference is having to be home with their families for long periods of time, in a more intense way. Problems can escalate when people feel “trapped” in the same space, emotions frayed, and even the most stable parent/adolescent relationships tested.

The time of adolescence is when young people are becoming autonomous, learning to make their own decisions and plans, learning how to navigate the world without their parents having to do the planning for them. In fact, they are ‘individuating’ from their families to form new tribes they can belong to with friends at school, sport or social groups. This process of creating their identity apart from their family is made more difficult right now, when homebound.

We really need to expect young people will want to spend even more time finding ways to engage with their friends outside their homes as their time locked down goes on. For that reason, it is important that parents/carers give themselves permission to loosen up rules around screen-time, seeing it as an investment in their social development. There needs to be some balance with non-screen activities and completed schoolwork before (almost) free time online… but with the usual controls e.g. knowing what your teens are accessing; knowing who they are talking with and watching out for online bullying, or grooming.

Not all teenagers respond to stress in the same way and some may be more affected right now than others. So how do you know when there may be an issue?

Some common changes to watch for include:

  • Excessive crying or irritation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Sleep problems – too much, not enough
  • Excessive use of social media – trying to keep connected
  • Excessive worry or sadness
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviours
  • Poor school performance or avoiding schoolwork/online learning
  • Difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Disinterest in activities enjoyed in the past
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs

Six Things which might help:

  1. Give your teenager some space i.e. avoid asking too many questions and give them some physical space in the house,
  2. When you do get to talk, talk ‘with’ them than ‘at’ them. It is useful to start by exploring their ideas and trying to understand their perspective, even if you disagree.
  3. Make sure they are included e.g. eating and talking together. They are still part of the household and will (ironically) feel left out if you leave them in their room all the time. Expect participation from time to time.
  4. Collaborate on setting up some daily structures. We are very much “all in it together”, so now is perhaps your best chance to organize more family participation in keeping the household functioning. Get a rotational list of jobs underway, in which everyone participates. Maybe your adolescent could be cooking dinner once a week, doing some core daily chores and washing your car. This not only carves out time away from screens, it models empathy for and participation in the family. Non-screen time plus a sense of achievement tends to improve morale and mood.
  5. Limit news exposure. Adolescents are highly impacted by emotive information, and the potentially overwhelming amount of tragedy, worry and change occurring around the world will impact them too. Check in with them about their worries.
  6. Don’t sweat the small stuff – focus on the big issues and don’t get caught up on small things like dirty dishes, or staying in pajamas all day, instead focus on listening to how they are managing, supporting their relationships with others in the family, their siblings, and mostly, just being with them.


Adolescents are learning all the time, and we need to help them learn good lessons about relating to and thinking about others as they experience this time of ‘quaranteen’. The balance of limits and compassionate engagement provide scaffolding for survival.

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