For older teenagers, the COVID-19 pandemic has come at a key moment in the transition to adulthood. In “normal” times, this age group are becoming more independent and are taking steps towards their futures – sitting exams, beginning new studies, and entering the workforce. In 2020, things have been rather different. In this blog Dr Ola Demkowicz (Manchester Institute of Education), Dr Emma Ashworth (Liverpool John Moores University), and Dr Terry Hanley (Manchester Institute of Education) discuss some of the experiences teenagers have reported during the UK lockdown, and provide recommendations to support teenagers now and during the next stages of the pandemic and recovery. 

This year, teenagers have found themselves restricted to their households, unable to see friends. Exams were cancelled, followed by an exams fiasco that caused widespread confusion and distress. Beginning new programmes of study has also come with new health concerns, including quarantining of school bubbles and lockdowns in university halls of residence, amidst shifts to virtual learning. The job market continues to dwindle, and initial evidence suggests that employment issues are hitting young people particularly hard.

An emotional rollercoaster

In The TELL Study (Teenagers’ Experiences of Life in Lockdown), we explored how UK-based teenagers aged 16 to 19 years subjectively experienced lockdown, with an emphasis on wellbeing and coping. In May 2020, 109 individuals wrote about their experiences, describing what lockdown looked like for them, what it felt like, and how they were managing it.

They described how lockdown brought many intense, difficult feelings. They experienced major changes to daily life, losing their routine and feeling isolated from friends – all of which was emotionally difficult. They also expressed fear about contracting COVID-19, both for themselves and their loved ones (and indeed in some cases, have lost family members).

“I have been feeling a wide range of emotions throughout the lockdown so far, my main emotion has been sadness.”

Teenagers told us they were working on taking care of themselves, using various strategies, although this wasn’t always easy. However, some also described feeling positive emotions alongside more difficult ones, or even felt okay overall. Many described feeling relief in lockdown, as the normal pressures of daily life had been removed and they were able to take the time to explore themselves and how they wanted to spend their time.

Sacrifices and uncertainty

The teenagers in our study told us that their lives had changed dramatically, and they felt they were giving up a lot, including “normal” teenage experiences: exams, hanging out with friends, the last day of school, prom, travelling. They felt these were important sacrifices but were still upsetting.

They described a great deal of uncertainty about the future. They had lost control of their grades, missed important activities that could boost CVs and personal statements, and worried about the future of the job market and the potential impact for their employment opportunities.

“I really wanted to do a degree apprenticeship instead of going to university, but my chances of doing that have reduced to almost impossible because so many companies can’t afford apprenticeships and the job market is so busy due to so many people losing jobs.”

Teenagers have been overlooked

Whilst teenagers have made enormous sacrifices this year, they have routinely been overlooked in decisions and villainised by the government and media. In our study, teenagers described frustration with the government’s handling of the pandemic, including concerns that their age group had been overlooked, with little guidance on how their education settings could support them or reduce transmission.

What can we do?

Recovery plans need to prioritise mental health and wellbeing, provide certainty where possible, and include teenagers in decision-making. Below we reflect on how this could be achieved. 

Prioritise mental health and wellbeing: Schools, colleges, and universities need to be able to focus on mental health and wellbeing. Everyone is coping differently, and teenagers therefore need multiple support options. For some, normalising the messiness of the situation may be helpful in group situations like classrooms and clubs, while others might need more personalised support from teachers and mental health and wellbeing professionals such as counsellors. At a policy level, this requires proactive support and investment in resources in schools and communities, including support for staff, as supporting teenagers at this time will likely be challenging.

In the short-term, this may clash with a perceived need to “catch up” on lost learning – policymakers could reduce some of the academic pressures contributing to that, such as reducing the pressure of exams. Policymakers and local authorities should work with education settings and teenagers to identify local wellbeing needs and ensure that there are support and resources available to work towards meeting these.

In the long-term, the lockdown provides a critical opportunity to reflect on the demands of education and daily life for teenagers. It is concerning that many teenagers experienced relief in lockdown, highlighting how much we normally ask of them. We must consider how our education system can better meet teenagers’ needs without creating too much pressure and, critically, must ensure that this pressure doesn’t worsen post-lockdown in a rush to catch up.

Provide more certainty: This year, there has been limited communication for teenagers about exactly what is going to happen, how it will happen, and why it will happen that way. Though there is a need to be reactive to the pandemic, where possible decisions need to be prompt and transparent, with clear communication and explanations for teenagers. Early, clear decisions will reduce uncertainty and give teenagers a greater sense of direction and control. Effort needs to be taken to create normality where possible, balancing their developmental need to socialise with peers and be independent with steps to restrict the spread of COVID-19.

Where there is uncertainty, teenagers may benefit from greater support to help them prepare for different eventualities. For example, increased career support provision could help teenagers prepare for emerging education and employment issues and create realistic goals to work towards.

Job schemes for teenagers and young people are especially important given that employment issues seem to be hitting younger people particularly hard, and the uncertainty of this is already causing distress. The initial “Kickstart” campaign could offer value, but is only a short-term solution for those at greatest risk, and is a blanket national approach with no capacity for localised tailoring and innovation. Greater investment and strategising towards youth employment will not only be valuable economically but also for mental health and wellbeing, to ensure that our teenagers and young people have hope and a feeling of direction for the future.

Involve teenagers in decision-making: We need to take clear steps to show teenagers that we value them and are taking their needs seriously. This includes much greater effort to involve teenagers in policy and provision decisions. Nationally, there is a need to work with and communicate with teenagers in making decisions that affect them, and support local communities to offer this in their own contexts (see the #iwill campaign to see effort to centralise young people’s voices). Locally, local authorities should focus on understanding emerging local needs and involving young people in their decision-making – for instance, Manchester City Council’s new Shadow Executive of young people is a positive step and it will be key to involve them in COVID-19 recovery planning. It may be valuable for other local authorities to consider ways to adopt or extend similar approaches to consistently involving young people in their decision-making processes.


Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

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