Initially, it seemed as if dreams had come true. No exams, no schools, and a long hot summer in which to enjoy themselves. In fact, the closure of schools through this period has left many teenagers and their parents anxious. Mental health charities warn that we may be facing an epidemic of mental health conditions among young people.
There seem to be two distinct tribes of adolescents that have emerged since this period of lock-down, both of whom face challenges to their psychological wellbeing. This divide already existed, but it has become more pronounced in the last few months.
First, there are the unmotivated. This group consists of a growing number of pupils who have taken advantage of the pandemic to drop out of education almost completely. Despite the online learning on offer, they have stayed permanently logged-off. According to research published in June this year by the UCL Institute of Education, two million children are doing less than an hour of schoolwork a day.
Research has also found that four million pupils had not had regular contact with teachers, and that up to six million children had not returned the last assignment set.
Second, and by contrast, there are the kind of motivated teenagers who were doing well at school and on course to achieve good marks in their exams.
While teachers and parents are naturally focusing on the absenteeism education crisis affecting the first group of children, the second group are equally vulnerable, albeit in a different way. We need to consider the mental health needs of both demotivated kids, who are having a tough time, and more academic ones, whom we shouldn’t overlook, because they are also struggling to adapt to the new academic landscape.
Many of these more high-achieving, ambitious teenagers feel let down by missing their exams and are now somewhat rudderless. Here is Karen, an academically high-achieving 16-year-old whose GCSEs were cancelled.
“We never had a chance to prove ourselves. We had been working for two or three years for that moment. Now it just feels like we are mucking around, which is nice, but we haven’t really earned it.”
These kind of motivated young people feel as if their future has been taken away from them. For them, doing well at their exams was the next step in their academic and professional careers. Now the path that lies ahead of them is distinctly uncertain.
How then can we as parents and teachers help both types of teenager navigate the new educational reality and support their mental health? One answer is to encourage your teenager to see the advantages of this new educational post-lockdown world. There are some silver linings.
First, there is a chance to rebalance away from an education that could previously have been thought to be just about exam results. As parents, we can help them focus instead on their non-academic qualities: the effort they make, or their helpfulness. They might be the person their friends come to for life advice, or they may have been a caring grandchild to their ailing grandparent through this challenging period.
Another way of helping your child adjust to the new academic landscape is to chat with your teenager about whether they are following a set of “rules for living” that say they must succeed in a certain, narrowly defined academic way.
Without realising it, we often live by a rule book that conforms to society’s expectations of what it means to be successful. One obvious measure is a string of grade As. Now is a good time to challenge some of the old rules. What rule book states that acing exams is the only way to be successful? Could there be a more flexible approach?
A second silver lining is some important psychological life lessons that this time of Covid-19 has provided. One is the lifelong need for young people to develop a kindly and forgiving voice for themselves, whatever the future holds.
Another good life lesson to be learned at this time is accepting the limits of our own agency. Carla Croft is a clinical psychologist who works in private practice and for the NHS. She says: “This can be a time to remind your teenager, and indeed yourself, that we only ever control so much, even without the educational challenges of the pandemic.”
For the religious among us, the serenity prayer has proved particularly powerful for me and my own teenagers through this time. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” It is good advice, whatever kind of teenager you have, as we all adjust to the new psychological reality.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund