Everybody, regardless of age, has had a lot less autonomy over their lives during the past year with pandemic restrictions.
“This year has been a very good example of safety before happiness and it can work to a point,” says psychotherapist Stella O’Malley. “But there is another point where there comes a day where there is a reckoning and you think the cost benefit analysis is not adding up and happiness is being too badly impacted.”
It has been impossible to give older children and teens the autonomy they clearly need, as evidenced by Dr Elizabeth Nixon’s Growing Up in Ireland study of social-emotional and behavioural outcomes in early adolescence, from data that was collected before we knew anything about pandemic parenting.
I am seeing a lot of kids who are not faring well. It feels like animals in the zoo; they’re self-destructing because they’re bored
We’re seeing the impact on adolescents of an absence of autonomy “under a petri dish”, says O’Malley. But “it’s knowledge to be aware of, that when they are freer, they will be happier and for parents to note that”.
She believes the lockdown has probably been satisfying in ways for over-controlling parents who “had licence” to restrict their children. “I am seeing a lot of kids who are not faring well. It feels like animals in the zoo; they’re self-destructing because they’re bored, they’re on their own.
“They need some risk-taking adventure, challenge, autonomy. They need it or they will wilt and they are wilting as we speak. I do think the teenagers and the early-20s were treated very callously by the public during this lockdown.”
In all countries, she argues, there has been a sense of “how dare” they be so irresponsible in not abiding all the time with all the restrictions imposed. “They weren’t threatened as an age group and, developmentally, it is appropriate for them to be seeking influence from their peers and losing influence from their families. It was harshest on them developmentally.
“The 75-year-olds did not have that biological urge to get out and make new friends,” she says. “I think that was really dismissed; it was ‘shut up, you’ve got your Netflix’ and I think that was really, really hard on them.”
All our autonomy is being curtailed, says Nixon, but maybe as adults we are better able to manage that because we don’t feel that internal drive for it from a development point of view.
“I think adolescents have suffered quite a lot because they have been taken away from their peer group and we know that is such an important thing for them at that stage.”
However, when we finally emerge from lockdown living, O’Malley predicts some parents are going to find it hard to let go of their children, adding: “The controlling person has had a good Covid!”
Read: Trading adolescents’ autonomy for safety is an exchange that needs balance