Supporting teenagers through school closure in a pandemic

The last few weeks have seen people’s lives changed in ways few could ever have imagined. In one family after another, one or both parents now find themselves working from home. At the same time, care facilities for younger children have been withdrawn. With the closure of schools, older children and teenagers find themselves without the daily structure school provides.

Until now, the focus has been on the necessity of drastic action to try to suppress the spread of the virus, the provision of finances to support businesses and the readiness, or otherwise, of various national health systems. How long will it be before other factors come to the fore? How do you cope with the tensions that can arise within a family when its members are forced to remain under the same roof for 24 hours a day, perhaps for weeks or months?

Teenagers, so often renowned for their social activity, are now expected to remain in social isolation. Already, I have seen a variety of schemes and suggestions for parents of younger children aimed at keeping them entertained. However, nowhere have I seen anything that discusses how to help teenagers and their parents. We don’t want them to just survive the pressures, but to come through the pandemic control measures stronger.

Issues for teenagers working from home

To a very large extent, a teenager’s life revolves around school. It is their place of work, and the nature of their work is the learning that takes place there. By necessity, school is highly structured. Everyone knows where they should be and what they should be doing throughout the school day. Alongside the workload, which can be intense, friendship groups thrive within the school community, providing for many the basis for their social life outside school. Almost without warning, all this has been taken away. With schools closed, teenagers are expected to work from home. The support of their peer group has suddenly been removed.

So, what are the issues parents should look out for?

  • Loss of structure

    Even if your teenager’s school provides a full distance-learning programme, the structure will likely be considerably less rigid than the structure of daily school attendance, perhaps leaving significant periods for self-directed study.

  • Prevarication.

    The personal vacuum created by the loss of structure may lead to an inability to focus or to initiate meaningful work. Staring blankly at a computer screen, reading words without taking in their meaning, giving up the attempt to understand at the first hurdle, always finding something that needs doing to avoid the work that should be the focus – these are just some of the forms prevarication might take.

  • Lack of personal organisation and time-management.

    Of course, some teenagers excel both in their personal organisation and in the way they manage their time. But many do not. For those whose rooms seem to resemble a rubbish tip, and whose ability to store work in some form of retrievable system seems non-existent, working from home could develop rapidly into a nightmare.


  • Concerns about the approaching exam season.

    It is not unusual for teenagers to feel some apprehension as the summer exam season approaches. For older teenagers, their future direction depends on the outcome of their exams. Preparing for those exams in isolation is very different from preparing as a year group in school, and may increase concerns for some. Added to this, the question in the back of their minds will be whether the exams will actually take place this year and what will happen to their future plans if exams are cancelled.

  • Distorted balance between work, rest and social interaction.

    Maintaining a healthy balance between these different aspects of life can be tricky for teenagers at the best of times. The sudden change of parameters could make this more challenging than normal.

  • Anxiety.

    The issues outlined above, along with heightened family tensions arising from forced household isolation and a sense of loneliness, could lead to increased levels of anxiety. The danger will become more acute if the situation is prolonged, as some are suggesting will be necessary, for several months. There may be times when fears for their own personal safety, and that of their family and friends, dominate and anxiety peaks for a while. It will be especially important for parents to look out for signs of increased anxiety or panic and offer a calm response.

How can parents support their teenagers?

Many parents will struggle themselves to cope with the changes being imposed on them by the current situation. The normal pattern of going out to work each day provides a measure of relief from family pressures. For the time being, such opportunities for relief have been removed, and the pressures will increase with each day of isolation within the home. Within that context, parents need to find ways to try to help their teenagers cope with the experience of isolation. So, what can parents do to offer support? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Expect and anticipate tensions.

    Tensions will arise, not necessarily in the first week, but probably sooner than we might expect. Everyone in the household is having to adapt at the same time to new circumstances that have been forced upon them, and with restrictions on movement outside the home, tensions will increase and erupt if not faced and addressed. Families who recognise the inevitability of tension, who anticipate where the points of friction will be, and who can work together to negotiate compromises, are more likely to find solutions that will work for the whole family. Honest recognition of tension and hard work to resolve them is a strong model that parents can give their teenagers in the current circumstances. One that will lay an excellent basis for any scenario in the future.

  • Establish a schedule.

    All members of the family will benefit if an agreed daily schedule can be established. This will give time for the work each family member needs to complete and provide time for other family activities within the home. For those teenagers whose planning skills are not yet sufficiently developed for them to be able to do this unaided, offer to help them draft a personal timetable each week for their schoolwork. This will contribute to the development of a valuable life skill as well as helping to compensate for the loss of structure felt due to the lack of traditional schooling.

  • Give responsibility.

    Encourage your teenager to take responsibility for the smooth-running of some area of family life. Real responsibility will help your teenager feel they are a valued member of the household.

  • Be available to listen and talk.

    Often, teenagers do not want to talk with their parents about their difficulties, fears and hopes; but sometimes they do. Being available, so that teenagers can talk when ready, is a valuable means of support in times of tension.

  • Give space, even where there is none.

    There will be times when your teenager simply needs space and permission to be on their own. If your household inhabits a small living space, this will be especially difficult. However, recognising when your teenager needs space could be a hugely important contribution to diffusing tension. Helping your teenager to recognise that others have similar needs is an important aspect of contributing to family life.

  • Family conferencing.

    The development of a weekly family conference could be an approach that some families might find useful. It is certainly a route to involving the entire family in recognising each other’s difficulties. Then we can promote active participation in family decision-making.

  • Fun helps relieve tension.

    The global situation of a health pandemic is a serious situation. However, finding ways for the family to have fun together will help relieve some of the tensions. It will help them keep a healthier perspective on the difficulties that have forced them together into household isolation.

  • Understanding the broader perspective.

    Teenagers sometimes lack the experience to see a broader perspective that extends beyond their own needs, fears and aspirations. Parents have an important role to play here through their own reflection and discussion with their teenagers. For example, understanding that the need for family isolation is as much about protecting others in society by limiting the spread of the virus as it is about protecting themselves and their immediate family, is an important broader perspective. If teenagers can be helped to develop an appreciation of these broader perspectives through this experience, parents will have taken an important step towards producing something positive from a serious situation. Discussion around the subject of reliable sources of information might be a good place to start.

And finally …

Social media – help or hindrance?

Social media offers a means for teenagers to keep in touch during this time of physical isolation from their friends. In terms of school work, it offers a means of peer consultation that is essential to learning. It is also a medium through which teenagers can remain informed about the outside world. However, there needs to be a balance so that social media is not allowed to become the sole source for information or a means of procrastination. Helping teenagers to develop a sense of control over their social media use, rather than allowing it to control them, will be a further valuable way in which parents can support their teenagers through the present crisis.

Supporting teenagers in the face of death.

Given the number of projected pandemic deaths, most of us will know someone who dies after contracting this virus. For our teenagers, this may mean the loss of a close family member, or a friend. For many teenagers, this might be their first experience of being faced by the death of someone they know. In such circumstances, knowing they have permission to grieve in whatever way they find natural and helpful, to be sad at their loss, to mourn the person who has died, to express their grief, anger and sense of loss, is vital. Here, more than in any other area, parents who make themselves available to listen, comfort and talk, will provide valuable support to their teenagers at a point of genuine crisis in their lives.

The importance of hope.

Human beings need to know there is hope. The pandemic is the most serious global situation that most of our teenagers will ever have experienced. However, they need to know that it will not last for ever. Furthermore, they need to learn to see such events in perspective. Helping their teenagers to develop a realistic sense of hope in difficult times is yet another way in which parents can offer invaluable support through the present difficulties.

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