COVID-19 restrictions and their impact on teens, most particularly Year 12 students

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to families around the world. UNESCO estimates that there are currently 1.38 billion children out of school or child care, without access to group activities, team sports, or playgrounds. In a letter published in The Lancet earlier this month the authors wrote that families are "living with increased stress, media hype, and fear, all challenging our capacity for tolerance and long-term thinking" and sadly, as they stated, there is no clarity on how long the situation will last.

Social distancing has been introduced to slow the spread of the virus and it certainly appears that the restrictions that have been put into place across the country have been effective in 'flattening the curve' (won't we all be so happy never to hear that phrase again once this is all over?). We've been told to 'stay home' and it would seem that a majority of the Australian population have heeded the call. Living in isolation is difficult for almost everyone, regardless of age, but we know that it is particularly tough for teens.

During adolescence friends matter and staying connected with them is essential to a young person's health and wellbeing. It is at this time of their life when they are more attuned to social status and eager to gain peer acceptance, far more than when they were children or later when they become adults. Not being able to socially connect with their friends is likely to be much more distressing for them than any other age group. Fortunately the online or digital world has provided them with a place to interact with their peers and although 'staying connected online' is not the same as 'staying connected in person', most experts believe that online contact can be helpful during this period of social distancing and isolation.

There is one group of teens, however that I am particularly concerned about and that is those in their final year of high school. Over the past couple of weeks I have been contacted by a number of Year 12 students, all with similar stories and requests. They all talk about the toll that the "unpredictable and uncertain circumstances" have had on their year group and ask me to send them through a brief video to them so that they can distribute through to their cohort to "help boost morale." It's extremely flattering to be asked and, of course, I send one through to them but it got me thinking about the impact these uncertain times are having on this particular group.

There has been a great deal of attention around the academic impacts of current restrictions and the resulting school closures (i.e., ATAR and whether there would have to be a Year 13 for this group) but very little has been said about the potential social impacts. These two excerpts from messages I have recently received provide great examples of some of the issues Year 12s are having to face on an emotional level:

"Some of our year are really struggling with losing what it means to be in Year 12. Even if schools go back we're not going to get the opportunity to have the full Year 12 experience. Our teachers keep saying that we will have a graduation but if we do there's no way that it is going to be like it is normally ... Stupid things like running school assemblies, looking after cheer squads at athletic carnivals and being able to use the Year 12 common room - they're the things that are getting people down."

"We had started planning my 18th six months ago and on the day it was meant to happen (a couple of weeks ago) I was so depressed. My family and friends tried to make me feel better and my Dad has promised that we'll have something bigger and better when this is all over but we all know it won't be the same. I've got a great group of friends but almost all of us have missed out on something that we were looking forward to ... Our formal has been postponed but most of us are being realistic about it and know that even if we do have one it'll be have to be different than in previous years. Why bother?"   

Every school that I have been in contact with are well aware that this is the year group that needs the most attention. Of course, the pressure is on to ensure that they are academically prepared for the months ahead but increasingly I'm hearing from teachers that they are doing their best to make sure these young people are supported emotionally. No-one finds the current situation easy but here are just some of the additional issues these guys have to deal with:

  • they are likely to lose many 'rites of passage' – some groups are fortunate and have already had their Year 12 formal, but many haven't. Graduation ceremonies and other formal events associated with leaving school will have to accommodate social distancing restrictions that are in place at the time and will likely look very different to those held in the past. Even if restrictions are relaxed, Schoolies (or Leavers in WA) is unlikely to take place in its usual form in most parts of the country. Travel restrictions will almost definitely prevent those planning to fly to Fiji or Bali from doing so. Most importantly, even if schools are fully reopened before the end of the year, they still miss out on the full 'school leadership' journey 'being the big kids' - something that every other group before them has experienced
  • some of them will miss out on celebrating turning 18 and legally becoming an adult - the 18th birthday has become so much more important than in the past. Not only will the person turning 18 lose the opportunity to celebrate the milestone with a big gathering of friends, other Year 12s miss out on attending 18th birthday parties. If alcohol is 'your thing' the first visit to a licensed premises and buying your first legal drink over the bar can be a huge deal - that has now gone. Although most young people can get their drivers license when they turn 17 (apart from Victoria where you must be 18), many teens get their licences in Year 12. Currently driving tests have been suspended across most jurisdictions
  • an uncertain future – at the very least we're looking at six months of some level of social distancing across most of the country. The lack of clarity about when this will all end causes anxiety for everyone but it is particularly difficult for those about to finish high school. Leaving the security of school can be exciting but also daunting - what does the future hold? For this current cohort some of the things they have to contend with include discussion about significant changes to tertiary courses and their availability; understandable concern about future employment prospects, with some sectors such as travel, tourism and hospitality being decimated in recent months; and restrictions to opportunities for overseas travel. For many young people leaving school they eagerly looking forward to a 'Gap Year', usually involving travel to Europe or other destination, before they begin their tertiary education. With the current restrictions in place, and no sign of significant changes occurring anytime soon, that experience has been taken away from them, at least for the foreseeable future.
Students in the northern hemisphere have been hit even harder as their school years are not too far from ending and it is unlikely that many will return before that time. This means that those in their final year in that part of the world have experienced even greater losses, for as well as those issues described above, many of them won't even get the opportunity to go back into a school as a graduating class and say goodbye. It's just so sad!

There's a great US article by Christopher Nunn that examines this sense of loss that many of the Class of 2020, including his daughter, are likely to be experiencing. He poses the question - how can you help them deal with all that is happening? Based on his personal experience, he didn't think he could and the best thing to do was to stay out of their way (one that I think many parents would agree is a pretty good option!) but when he went to a mental health expert, he got the following advice:

"Be compassionate and truly listen to your child when they speak about their worries and the fact that they are upset with activities being cancelled. It's important to validate their feelings during this time, even if they are disappointed and sad. Ask your child how you can support them through this time. It is important to not try and solve their problems when they are upset. Just show compassion, validate, and be present."

Schools are now beginning to gradually reopen across the country (at least in some way) and our Class of 2020 are luckier than many others across the world - for unless something dramatic happens, they will get the opportunity to come together as a group and say goodbye. That said, it's a tough year academically and when you combine that with the losses they will experience and so much uncertainty about the future - these guys are going to need a great deal of support. I think the last sentence from the quote above says it all - just show compassion, validate and be present. That doesn't sound like much but it could make all the difference to someone finding it all a bit too much.

Reference

Cluver, L., Lachman, J.M., Sherr, L., Wessels, I., Krug, E., Rakotomalala, S., Blight, A., Hillis, S., Bachman, G., Green, O., Butchart, A., Tomlinson, M., Ward, C.L., Doubt, J., & McDonald, K.  (2020). Parenting in a time of COVID-19. The Lancet 395, e64.

Null, C. (2020). The reality of COVID-19 is hitting teens especially hard. Wired, April 6. https://www.wired.com/story/covid-19-is-hitting-teens-especially-hard/ accessed 24 March, 2020.

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