Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

ParentsMarch 31, 2020

‘I need people to make sure I’m OK’: Emily Writes on how teens are coping with lockdown

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Emily Writes talks to teenagers about how the level four restrictions are affecting them, and asks how they can be better supported.

There are unfortunately so many terrible stereotypes about teenagers, but Gen Z might just be our most resilient generation yet.

Struggling through feelings of helplessness around climate change, they started a movement to make governments around the world hear their voices. In the face of leaders and old men laughing at them, mocking them, verbal and even physical abuse – they kept fighting.

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor. In short – she knows teenagers. Anyone who knows teenagers or has a teenager knew the lockdown would be difficult. I wanted to find out how this generation of activists and hopeful young people was coping with the level four restrictions so I asked Woods to help circulate a survey.

These are, in their own words, how teenagers around New Zealand are feeling facing a pandemic with the rest of the country. They’re anonymous because people aren’t always kind to teens and we wanted them to be able to speak freely.

“It’s extremely surreal. I never would have thought I would have to experience isolation. I’m glad that the reason for the lockdown is not war, but it still is scary, as I fear for my elderly relatives. I think it was absolutely the correct thing to do, and I’m not only saying that because we don’t have to go to school. I think if we all were to actually stay home and abide by the rules, we would all be OK.”

“I think that Jacinda Ardern had no choice but to put the country in lockdown. She is an amazing woman, leading the country through such hard times such as Covid-19, Christchurch shootings, and she even had a child. I would prefer to be at home and keeping the community safe instead of at school with the potential of an outbreak.”

“I understand that Covid-19 is a terrible thing to happen to the world but I also think that this isolation is a good time to manage my priorities and my own learning.”

“I think it’s a really interesting time and I’m just really feeling a mix of anxiety and an odd calm. I don’t really think my feelings know what they’re doing. Which can be tough, but that’s OK, I think in the future it’ll be cool to tell my kids that I lived through this when they might study it in school.”

Overwhelmingly, the teenagers surveyed missed their friends (Photo: Getty Images)

More than 100 teenagers responded to the survey. They all knew very well why the lockdown was happening and were overwhelmingly in support. They seemed to have faith in our government. I asked Woods if having faith in leaders might be a new thing for this generation, who have felt so let down in the past.

“I think many more young people of this generation are politically and socially aware than in the past, and I also think they can see their voices making a difference, and that’s incredibly powerful,” Woods says.

“There have always been young people with strong opinions and who have ideas about how they want the world to be, but I wonder if this generation feels more empowered to act on those ideas. They can see people of different ages, genders, sexualities and ethnicities in parliament, and you can be who you can see, right? I think they do have faith in this government, and in particular Jacinda Ardern – who was mentioned time and time again in the survey – because they can see those people working for them. Perhaps previously teens felt politics was somewhat irrelevant – not so any more.”

Overwhelmingly, teenagers in New Zealand missed their friends. Over and over again they said the hardest thing was the severing of their face-to-face connections with those who understand them best – their peers.

“Feelings of connectedness and belonging are supportive of good mental health for all of us, and for many teens the most important connections are to their friends,” Woods says.

“Young people often feel better understood by their peers than by their family, and for many it is their friends they are most likely to go to for support. While young people are used to connecting a lot over social media, the isolation period is bringing home to them just how important it is to connect with people in real life. Maybe that’s a good thing going forward, but that lack of one-on-one is going to be a real challenge over the isolation period.”

Other teenagers were facing a much bigger challenge than missing friends. Seeing parents under enormous stress because they’d lost their income was weighing heavily on the minds of some kids. Fighting and instability in the home had some teenagers hiding in their rooms. The impact of teenagers spending a month away from school – a place that might be their only safe space – should be a concern to the whole country. Teens talked about how they felt scared, imprisoned, lonely, and even how they just craved a hug from somebody.

“I have serious concerns about some young people’s physical and emotional safety at this time. Many families are going to be under additional stress at the moment and for some that’s a recipe for disaster. There are some homes that are unsafe for children and young people at the best of times, and isolation is going to add to their feelings of helplessness and aloneness. The negative impact on mental health is a real worry too.  Schools and support agencies will be reaching out to these families and young people as much as they can, but I’m worried it won’t be enough.”

When asked how parents and caregivers can support them, it will come as no surprise to parents of teens that those surveyed said they need more food. Surprisingly, though, many teens said they wanted their parents to talk to them more.

  • More talking with each other. Because sometimes it can be a bit silent compared to school.
  • I need space. I still need love, and help, but I also need my own space that I can go to and chill.
  • Understand when I get sad.
  • I need people to make sure I’m OK.
  • Play board games with me without fighting.
  • Hugs and reassurance.
  • Include me in conversations.
  • I think it would be nice if my family just spent a little more time with each of us. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate everything my parents do for us, I really do.
  • Inform me of the facts.
  • Ask me if I’m OK.
Teens talked about how they felt scared, imprisoned, lonely, and even how they just craved a hug from somebody (Photo: Getty Images)

Reading response after response from teenagers asking their parents to “check if I’m OK” really reinforced to me how hard it is for teenagers to manage their feelings. They’re not children or adults, but an in between. That can be hard for parents to navigate. Give them space, but not too much. Woods agreed.

“When it comes down to it, young people want the same things all of us want – love, connection, understanding, someone to listen to them without judgement – the sorts of things that make us feel valued and respected for who we are. It’s a fine balance working out how to let teens maintain their boundaries while also providing adequate support, but it’s really important that parents make themselves available to their teens, and listen to what they need.”

Mike Munnelly, chief executive of Barnardos NZ, said its support line 0800 WHATSUP for children and teenagers has seen a surge in calls from distressed young people since lockdown began.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve had a significant increase in both phone calls and online chats with children and teenagers in Aotearoa, who need the help of our specialised child and youth counsellors at this difficult time. Over the past week alone, our call volumes have doubled. It’s of utmost importance that tamariki and rangatahi in Aotearoa have support channels that they can go to for help, and we want them to know that we’re here to listen about anything at all.”

Young people aren’t just feeling anxious about the lockdown, Munnelly said.

“As well as worries about Covid-19, it’s also important to remember that children and teenagers are continuing to need support on other issues in their lives during this time. The problems children and young people were calling the helpline about before Covid-19, like bullying, family problems, relationship issues and mental health struggles, don’t stop during this time. No problem is too big or too small for our counsellors to listen and provide support on.”

“We know the need for children and teenagers to have a safe place to talk will continue to be significant over the coming months, as they, like all of us in Aotearoa, continue to feel and experience the ongoing impacts of this pandemic. 0800 WHATSUP will be a crucial and trusted place for tamariki and rangatahi to keep being able to reach out to and know they’ll get the kind, caring and professional support they might need.”

The Barnados helpline is funded partly by the government and partly by donations from the public.

The final survey question was about hopes for the future. I was unsurprised that teenagers’ hopes were for their families and the world – rather than for themselves. The idea that teenagers are selfish or unthinking or self-absorbed is debunked time and time again but it prevails nonetheless. It seems like a sad self-fulfilling prophecy that some teens end up acting out due to the relentless expectation by adults (who should know better) that they will. I felt buoyed reading their responses:

“I hope that once we can go back, everyone will be really supportive of one another, helping them get back on their feet after the long period of isolation.”

“I hope that for the rest of the year people maintain the kind mindsets that many have gained in this period and that people continue to check in on friends, families and neighbours. Even after the virus has been contained.”

They’re a generation of hope – we must make sure we can see their hope and not let them down.

Keep going!