Managing teenagers in the time of corona: from lock-downs to friends

Teens in year 13 haven't just missed out on A-levels; they've missed the chance to be kings and queens of their schools. That's a major loss

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girls celebrate a-level results
2020's Year 13 isn't just skipping exams; they're missing out on being the queens and kings of their schools Credit:  Christopher Pledger

A text from my son, from his school (he’s a boarder), just before 5pm last Wednesday, March 18:

School’s shutting on Friday. I’m freaking out. X

I call immediately but he doesn’t pick up. On social media there are pictures of delighted-looking kids and comments such as ‘YAY! NO EXAMS!’ I expect this is what my younger son, 14 in May, will be feeling (he’s a day pupil at a different school). And, frankly, a premature end to Year 9 is no big deal; I expect him to skateboard his way through the corona crisis. For my elder son, however —Year 13 and weeks away from A-levels — it’s a different story. 

When we do finally speak, he’s in a big group of confused kids, all on the phone to their equally confused parents. My son’s circle of friends/housemates includes teens from Italy, Hong Kong, Nigeria and the Middle East, and emotions are running high. While nobody is exactly heartbroken about not sitting exams in May/June, they are all upset about precisely what being denied the exams may, in turn, deny them. 

Will they be judged on their mocks (a strategy favouring girls, who tend to take a less just-in-time approach to exams)? Or (for those who, like my son, were relying on their final grades before applying to uni) will teachers predict grades? And, if so, is that a fail-safe approach? At this stage, nobody has a clue. 

Out of a boarding community of around 200, spread over six houses, by Thursday evening parents and guardians have swooped and there are only around 30 kids left—all boys. I receive another text from my son: a friend who lives in the UAE is stranded now their borders are closed—can I put him up? 

—Of course! I reply instinctively, without thinking. ‘You do realise he could be here for months?’ says my partner, with a shrug. An email from his parents — we’ll call him David — drives the point home:

Thank you so much for offering to put David up for as long as the borders this end are closed. Please feel free to treat him as you would your son and make sure he pulls his weight helping around the house! We will be in touch over the next few days...

I collect my son on Friday afternoon (David joins us the following day) and the atmosphere is extremely sad. There are cross-generational hugs and tears between the few remaining students and staff, and I shed a few myself, because children leaving school for the last time is a rite-of-passage for parents, too. 

The journey home is only 30 minutes. When we arrive my son’s sadness is already bubbling over into anger that the entire 2020 Year 13 cohort — about 250,000 nationwide — has been stripped of their entire raison d’etre, of being the Boss Class, the Kings-and-Queens of their school. When you have been so busy preparing to fly and have your wings prematurely clipped, it hurts.

The psychologist Philippa Perry — mother of adult daughter Flo, wife of Grayson and author of the recent best-selling ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did)’ — empathises: ‘It’s a terrible shame and these teenagers must be feeling awful: geared up for the rites of passage and now so frustrated. You can’t fix this for your son—however you can be on his side, and alongside him as he goes through this disappointment. I hope this generation can plan a new rites-of-passage when this is all over’.

In the meantime, attempting to adjust to the new parameters, there is both domestic confusion and inevitable friction. On the one hand, Mothers’ Day passes successfully; me, my boys, plus my extra honorary son walk our whippet on the Fire Hills, near our home in Hastings. As a ‘family group’, we’re together, at a distance from other walkers. The sun shines, the views across the Channel are glorious and there’s plenty of room for everybody.

However, despite clear advice to keep younger and older generations apart we see plenty of inter-generational groups of grandparents, parents and young children together. Back at home I make a lasagne and we all watch ‘Le Mans 66’ on Amazon Prime. For two-and-half-rip-roaring hours on the sofa we forget about all the chaos. Oddly, it’s one of the nicest Mothers’ Days I can recall.

By the next morning, however, my eldest son is chafing at the metaphorical bit: ‘Dom’s coming round and we’re going out.’

‘And you’ll all be two metres apart while he drives his stretch limo, will you? So that you can see your asthmatic dad sooner rather than later?’ 

Mild sarcasm is one approach. After he leaves the house, we try another — texting.

Which bit of social-distancing do you not get?

- Don’t patronise me 

I’m not the one making the rules. If people carry on socialising the way they have been, we’ll be in lockdown!

- I know, Mum. We all know. X

Philippa Perry is unsurprised: ‘What is weird for teenagers — and indeed for all of us — is that although our reasoning dictates that we should be locked-down, our bodies haven’t caught up with that reasoning. Every fibre of a teenagers’ being is looking for contact with his tribe—however teenagers are more likely to hear you if, instead of threats, you can really listen to how angry they are and validate their feelings, with no ‘buts’.

When they eventually run out of all the different reasons why they are so angry, reiterate those boundaries. Make clear it’s not your decision — it’s just how this virus spreads. He’s not risking his life — but he is endangering others.’ 

It’s a lot for any teenager — and, indeed, parents and carers of teenagers — to take on board. In the old pre-Covid-19 world, parental instinct included understanding and indulging an older teenager’s almost compulsive need to stretch the metaphorical umbilical cord to breaking point; behaviour endorsed by precisely all the Year 13 school-leaver rites-of-passage — the proms, festivals, trips to Ayia Napa and, in August, the traditional newspaper-cliché pictures of happy teenage girls with their 4 A* A-levels. Everything, indeed, that has just been snatched away. 

Teenagers grapple with this while parents and carers struggle to keep their boundaries firm, in a febrile environment in which everybody’s boundaries are changing virtually daily. Or as one friend, also the parent of an emotionally pin-balling Year 13, put it to me this morning: ‘One minute my heart is breaking for her broken dreams, the next I’m shouting that if she doesn’t get her act together I’m going to lock her in her bedroom until August! Somewhere in-between is where we both need to be, clearly’. 

I keep having to remind myself to lay an extra place at the dinner table for my lovely unexpected ‘extra son’, whom I sure would rather be at home with his own quasi-functional family. With their wings clipped this ‘Corona Generation’ are already discovering that their flights will be tough, long-haul and sometimes spent in the brace-position; we watched the PMs announcement about ‘lockdown’ restrictions ‘en-famille’ on Monday evening and at the end the teenagers finally understood where we all are, for a while.

Yet, even as we adjust to the new normal they need to believe they’ll get to their eventual destinations and also that, collectively, we are right here for them, helping them find their way. Fingers crossed.

If you’ve any interesting/constructive ideas on how to help/engage with ‘The Corona Generation’, please tweet me: @kateflett,  #2020Year13.