Locked DOWN but not OUT: how to support teens and the Coronavirus Generation
6 months ago we saw one of the most dramatic changes to our lives that most of us have ever experienced, with the start of lockdown: measures imposed so quickly they took many of us by surprise, restricting our movement and our lives, measures which in words from psychologist Dr Rowena Hill, an expert in disaster and emergency management, affected “everyone, everywhere in everything”.
Those measures were, of course, designed to limit and minimise the impact of the virus on people’s physical health and wellbeing - particularly those who were more vulnerable to the impact of it, and significantly focusing more therefore on the whole on the needs of adults in general and older adults in particular.
But there was an inevitable pay off in the impact on emotional and mental wellbeing - for us all, as life changed and so many of our basic human needs were restricted or off-limits.
But perhaps one of the most poignant aspects of lockdown, particularly as we’ve continued to journey through the various phases of it, has been the effect it has had on a generation ironically least likely to be impacted physically by the virus, but for whom the emotional, relational and psychological impact has been most dramatic: our children and teenagers - those growing up in the time of coronavirus - now being described in some circles as the ‘Coronavirus generation’.
And the discussions about this generation are not very inspiring. Media reports have spoken of a generation lost, permanently and negatively affected by what they have been through. Vastly negative predictions have been made of the impact of isolation, loss of normal learning environments, increased time on the internet and social media, the loss of normal social contact and friendship and missing out on the normal rituals, landmarks and transitions of early adult life. Concerns have rightly been raised about the impact on mental health and we are already seeing early signs of raised levels of anxiety and depression amongst young people alongside behavioural impacts like widespread struggles with sleep, or motivation.
“The coronavirus has the potential to create a generation of socially-awkward, insecure, unemployed young people.”
Jordan Patel - Social Entrepreneur
“It’s hard to imagine the future of this cohort in any detail, beyond the fact that their lives will be, in at least some ways, profoundly different from what they might have been.”
Amanda Mull - Writer, The Atlantic
“The coronavirus lockdown has felt like a lifetime for children and young people, and the negative effects could last a real lifetime if they do not have the right support for their mental health and wellbeing. “
Javed Khan - Chief Executive, Barnados
“It’s been a battle for all of us, granted, but I have to wonder, as teenagers receive results for exams they didn’t sit, and offers from universities that they are not even able to attend, whether these young people have the most lost ground to recover.”
Miriam Jordan Keane - Chief Marketing Officer, National Citizen Service Trust
“I fear many thousands of other vulnerable teenagers, have had very little structure to their lives over the last six months. School was often a stretch for them, and I am concerned we are never going to get some of them back into education. If we do not act now, this could result in a lost generation of teens – ... We must not look back in five years at a generation of vulnerable teenagers who fell out of society and ended up drifting into crime and unemployment. ”
Anne Longfield - Children’s Commissioner
The question is - does all of this need to be the case? It cannot be denied that this generation is living through one of the most challenging times to hit humanity for decades and we must help those in need and vulnerable. But challenging times can release great things as well as difficulty: bring out the best in people as well as expose them to the worst. So much depends on the story we speak over our young people: the resources we give them to help them manage and process what they are seeing and hearing, the way we support them as they find their way through what their world is becoming - both now within lockdown and in the future as they live through the longer-term impact economically, educationally and socially.
After all we must remember that whilst they sometimes inevitably struggle with life’s pressures, this generation are also one carrying some amazing attributes. The energy and passion of the teenage years, combined with a willingness to embrace and be up for change offers so much potential, and their readiness to challenge patterns and injustice can be an exciting catalyst for wider social change. Look at Greta Thunberg, 17 years old and challenging leaders at the highest level about climate change. Or the young people so instrumental in the recent Black Lives Matter protests and movement. And it doesn’t need to be about numbers or fame or social media popularity: how many households in lockdown were held together or supported by amazing teenagers quietly showing resilience beyond their years or supporting others in their streets and communities, doing shopping, keeping in touch with people living alone or remembering elderly neighbours or relatives.
“Are they hard done by? Certainly. Lost? Not a chance. From Black Lives Matter marches to protests over A-level results – young people everywhere, even in a moment where they could be forgiven for feeling sorry for themselves, have mobilised themselves in ingenious ways on social media, our parks and our high streets, to stand together in the face of injustice. It only takes a glimpse of these brilliant movements to feel their resilience, compassion and enthusiasm.”
Miriam Jordan Keane chief marketing officer for the National Citizen Service Trust.
That’s not to say this hasn’t been incredibly hard for some young people. Mental health and emotional wellbeing were already big challenges for this generation - that much is beyond argument. And Coronavirus certainly isn’t making that easier. Studies vary but some report that as many as 7 in 10 young people say they are struggling with mental health issues as we continue to manage the challenges of lockdown and easing and trying to return to some kind of normal. But as adults, we do young people a major injustice if we allow ourselves to repeat negative proclamations and prophecies about their future without actively stepping in to try to change things. And for those who have struggled, rather than belittle or do down their suffering we need to help them to hold what they are feeling, validate the trauma and difficult emotions like loss and anxiety - but then also help them start to think about what it looks like to overcome those things - and even to grow from what they have been through. After all, resilience isn’t about never having struggles or falling down - it is the ability to pick yourself back up, to keep going, to adapt, learn and find ways of not just surviving but thriving even in difficult times.
So this is the vision behind Headstrong: a new online space launching this week for young people. Headstrong is a partnership between MASF and national youth organisation Youthscape and it is all about equipping young people to manage the challenges to their emotional wellbeing - but to do so in a way that enables rather than disables, helping them find a way through the labyrinth of difficult emotions, decisions or situations they face and recognising that real life and real success involves messy times: lows as well as highs, disappointments as well as triumphs and a LOT of moments where things do not go according to ANY of our plans!
Headstrong aims to be a safe space young people can share stories, inspire one another and connect with good wisdom to support their emotional wellbeing - but it also has a bigger aim and vision: to speak a better story over this generation. We want to speak LIFE over a generation told they are lost, dream big for them so we can stand tall with them and provide support for them so we can see them through this tough time and release the potential and possibility they carry.
Headstrong launches 1 Sept at beheadstrong.uk - it’s designed to be best viewed on a mobile phone so you might want to check it out that way!
Do tell any teens/young people in your life about headstrong - but we are also inviting adults and people of all ages to get involved! Do you have a story to tell of real life, or real faith, in the real world? Have you overcome a challenge, found ways to manage in tough times or experienced the ups and downs of emotional health? What got you through lockdown - and do you have something to share from this unusual time?
Go to beheadstrong.uk/get-involved to find out how to share your story to inspire young people all over the UK!
And of course - join us in praying - not just for this new resource but for the wellbeing of young people as we head into the autumn and all it will bring.