It’s never been exactly easy to get a teenager up in the morning. But behind many of our children’s closed bedroom doors, something is now unravelling. During last spring and summer, parents of older children worried about them galivanting off for rebellious lockdown-busting parties. In the dark depths of January, the fear is more for kids with all the stuffing knocked out of them; teenagers spending the whole day huddled miserably under duvets, refusing to complete online lessons, or mentally checking out.
Illicit teenage parties were, of course, a health risk. But sad, withdrawn, angry kids who would rather roll over than face another day in lockdown represent a whole new medical crisis in the making.
This week, the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield warned that young people’s mental health services were “unable to meet demand” in a pandemic. Last weekend, a coalition of child health experts warned in a letter to the Observer that “children’s welfare has become a national emergency”. But these clinical terms can’t capture how it feels to have a once sunny-tempered child who suddenly won’t even dress or wash, let alone sit through hours of Zoom lessons, facing an ever-longer waiting list for counselling.
Fiona Forbes of the campaign group September for Schools, which argues for education to be prioritised through the pandemic, says the emails she gets from parents are becoming more desperate and frightened. “In the summer it was about juggling – ‘I can’t oversee small children and try to work’. Now we’re getting stories every day of children who, as one mum put it, are ‘crumbling before my eyes’. They can’t sleep, can’t eat, always in their pyjamas.”
Unlike toddlers barrelling into Zoom conference calls, distressed 13-year-olds prowling the house because they can’t sleep is not the stuff of cute public anecdotes. But ask parents privately how their children are coping, and the floodgates open.
Michael, whose 12-year-old developed OCD after the first lockdown, thinks that “not finishing primary school properly, missing friends and sport” were all factors in his son’s difficulties. Sarah has three sons, the eldest of whom is in his first year at university and is frustrated that he can’t go back; the youngest, having just started secondary school, is now visibly switching off from learning.
But it’s the middle one, in his GCSE year, who worries her most. He stays up too late, gaming with friends, angry and sad. “He’s starting to rage against the world. Nothing makes sense any more to him. He misses his teachers and his friends,” she explains. “Basically, for the first time since Covid was a word, I am now worried about the mental health of my children.” Both Sarah and her husband work in education and, as she points out, if they aren’t sure how to help, then families in tougher circumstances must have it far worse. “Every day it kills me thinking of the kids – ones I know, ones my husband knows – who will be having such a dreadful time.”
For parents of children with special needs, meanwhile, life has become doubly difficult. Jane, whose 17-year-old and 13-year-old are both autistic, worries that years of painstaking progress are being undone. “The mental health of young people is a national emergency.”
Educational provision has thankfully improved in leaps and bounds since the last lockdown, with many state as well as private schools now providing a full timetable of live lessons, at least for those lucky enough to have laptops. But concern over the emotional impact of months in isolation is rising with this second school shutdown, alongside new questions about the pressure-cooker effect of online learning.
At worst, headteachers fear older teenagers dropping out for good. At best, it’s all the drudgery of school without the fun bits. A Mumsnet survey of home-schooling parents found three-quarters thought their children were now more demotivated or disengaged.
Jill’s once-sunny year 8 daughter “approaches her laptop with trepidation every morning”, having started to dread the work set online; the teacher isn’t always around to help, so her daughter sobs over things she can’t figure out. Lucy’s 15-year-old daughter, who should have sat GCSEs this summer, is increasingly distressed about not knowing when or how her work will be assessed for the teacher grades now replacing exams. “She said to me, ‘I feel under so much pressure all the time because every piece of work I do could count’,” says her mother, who also worries that her 13-year-old is becoming sad and withdrawn, missing friends.
For older teens, biologically driven to crave independence, being kettled with their parents is a particular kind of torture. So they bury themselves in gaming or Tiktok, where their friends are. But as any doom-scrolling adult knows, overdoing it on social media simply risks accelerating a downward spiral.
Plenty of kids will, it should be said, ride all this out having suffered from nothing worse than boredom. For those who are very shy, or bullied, or children who struggle with conventional school, staying home may even be a positive relief. And since adolescence is a famously rocky ride, perhaps some of these teenagers would have struggled even without lockdown.
But the Mental Health of Children and Young People survey conducted last year by NHS Digital found the incidence of “probable mental health problems” in English five- to 16-year-olds rising from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020. A quarter of children and young people suffered disrupted sleep, and one in 10 often or always felt lonely, with the children of parents who were struggling, financially or otherwise, at highest risk.
Referrals to child mental health services fell during the first lockdown, when schools were closed. But they rose in autumn, when teachers could once again cast an experienced eye over the kids they had been most worried about.
This week’s announcement that schools might start returning from 8 March does, then, offer some relief in sight. But almost all the parents I spoke to stressed that they didn’t want schools rushing back in the pandemic before it was safe. What they wanted was to be heard, and helped.
How best to do so? Longfield wants ministers to speed up the return to normality by using blended learning, with children dividing time between home-schooling and class. Opening up grassroots sport once it’s safe would give some teens a critical outlet too; and some heads are already quietly offering part-time places to teens on mental health grounds.
But above all, we must prepare for the aftermath of this pandemic, expanding mental health services fast enough to deal with whatever emerges from behind closed bedroom doors. As Jane put it: “We have to plan for when people come out of the darkness, but we find so many young people still stuck there.”
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
This content was originally published here.