Where have all the kids gone?

And how to get them back

Over the last three months I’ve noticed a worrying trend. My son’s school friends have stopped engaging with him. It happened gradually.

One by one they stopped gaming online, the messages stopped and as for phone calls. Do kids even know how to have a phone conversation?

At first, I thought it was him, he had annoyed them and it was the usual falling outs that you have as a young teenager. He’s 13. We are fairly strict about what games he can play and Grand Theft Auto is a no. All his mates seem to be able to play whatever they want when they want.

Then it started to happen to my daughter too, she’s 11 and my 15 year old step-daughter. Hmmm. So, I started to ask around and even put a post on Facebook about it. I must have been concerned as I rarely use it for personal stuff.

Turns out we are not alone, it’s happening around the UK, maybe abroad too. You tell me. Are a parent in another country and reading this? Have you seen the same thing?

One friend and parent of two teenage boys said, “My boys are in less and less contact with friends but are communicating better with each other and with us. I think boys in particular need to do things together to engage with each other so social media etc only works up to a point.”

Another friend with slightly younger children added, “My youngest sees his friends a lot but my year 7 tends to communicate through PS4 when he plays and only 1–2 friends.

“He has definitely regressed. He was beginning to get his independence during his first year at senior school and now has gone back to comfort of home and family. He won’t go anywhere without me or his younger brother.”

My cousin in Scotland wrote, “I think that human contact can’t be replaced with virtual contact, it loses the subtleties and non-verbal cues. My daughter certainly seems to find some of the virtual stuff too pressured and not relaxed enough. She’s meeting up with individual friends now and doing well with maintaining social distancing.

With my son, I have to organise some social contact otherwise he won’t do it. He is definitely worse off when his only contact with his friends is via technology. But he is struggling with the social distancing and not being allowed inside houses (to play computer games with them). His meet ups aren’t the same anymore and that makes him sad. We have an amazing youth group here that are doing Zoom get together and 1:1 walks etc. That helps him a lot.

What the scientists say

It’s only for a few months so nothing to worry about, right? Well maybe or maybe not.

Neuoscientists in this article on the BBC Newswebsite think we have cause for concern.

The teenage brain is at a delicate stage in its development. We know that much of the connections between the limbic brain and the pre-frontal cortex aren’t fully formed until around 25.

The limbic brain is one of the most basic areas and handles our emotions. The pre-frontal cortex is where we do our rational thinking, executive decision making and risk assessment among other things.

It’s during these years that many hormonal changes happen and teenagers are hardwired to move away from the family group.

Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, from the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge said,

“Owing to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, many young people around the world currently have substantially fewer opportunities to interact face-to-face with peers in their social network at a time in their lives when this is crucial for their development,” she says.

“Even if physical distancing measures are temporary, several months represents a large proportion of a young person’s life.

She and Amy Orben, research fellow at Cambridge, and Livia Tomova, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, call for more research to understand the effects of “social deprivation” on adolescents.

Teenage Mental Health

What we do know is that most mental illness begins in teenage years. At this age and with this generation more than before, they haven’t been able to develop resilience to be able to cope.

Here are some sobering statistics from www.mentalhealth.org

  • 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year.
  • 50% of mental health problems start by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
  • 10% of children and young people (aged 5–16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem.
  • 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems do not get appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.

They listen to stories on the news, they hear parents talking and it’s easy to forget they have their own fears. Add into the mix all the insecurities we have in those years (it wasn’t only me was it?) and it can explain why many become anxious.

They may not sit down and tell us how they are feeling in a rational way but they tell us nonetheless. We can spot it in their behaviour. Some become withdrawn, others play up.

What matters is that when we see a change in their behaviour to spend time to understand them. To listen and listen without judgement.

How to build empathy with your teenager

First, let’s be clear about what empathy is.

In short empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Dr Brene Brown describes it as the ability to communicate with someone that they are not alone. Watch her brilliant video.

Simple to define, harder to practice. If you want to read about the three types of empathy, check out my other article on Medium

Two things to develop and one to control

The first is a healthy dose of curiosity. Empathy requires genuine interest in the other person. The definition is ‘the desire to learn or know about’. Without curiosity about what the other person is thinking or feeling it’s hard to build empathy.

To be curious, we must suspend judgement. Non-judgemental listening is key to empathy. Let’s be honest though, non-judgemental listening is not easy is it?

I know I often have that voice in my head, jabbering away at 100mph as someone else is talking. The one who likes to voice his own opinions. The one who can be dismissive of others, their views and how they are feeling. The one who isn’t listening to what they are saying. He is listening to respond, not listening to understand.

Yeah, that one. You know what I’m talking about.

Keeping him quiet takes self-awareness and self-care. If I’m stressed, tired or hungry he can be a nightmare to control.

Assuming, I have him under control, I’m curious and willing to listen non-judgementally, then these five questions will help.

What’s going on for them right now?

This is the first place to start. Assumptions are your enemy. Remember my embarrassing assumption at the start of this article? Make sure you fully understand what’s going on for them. In coaching we have a saying: ‘The problem the client brings you is never the problem’. There might be more going on than meets the eye.

What might they be feeling?

The mistake I made was to assume the lady in my workshop felt the same way I did. You can have a good guess and you might be right, but keep that to yourself until you can check.

Have I ever felt this was and what was it like?

This is where we use that emotional empathy we talked about earlier. You may have experienced something similar at one time. Recall it. Feel it.

What is important to them?

Again, intuition can help here, but only in-so-far as to build an idea of what that might be. Keep your ideas as a mental note until you can check with the other person. Their values, past experiences and motivations could mean what you think is important to them, isn’t.

What do they want from this interaction?

The last and no means least important question to ask yourself.

It’s a tricky time, but with love, kindness and support we can help our children through this and get their friends back.

. . .

Please share with anyone else you think may get value from this.

Helping people use mental fitness for a great life. Author of Mental Toughness Metaphors — Stories to inspire resilience anthony@threefifty9.com

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