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   Teenagers in a Pandemic webinar recording now available

ALL your questions answered: Teenagers in a Pandemic

Last night I delivered a sellout webinar, Teenagers in a Pandemic, to 98 parents, teachers and other interested adults. (98 because, annoyingly, my Zoom package insists that I can’t have more than 100 and that has to include myself and my trusty business assistant and righthand woman, Caroline.) Wonderful feedback and comments and everything went pretty smoothly, thank to a lot of planning by the two of us. A few small technical things I will do better next time. One of the things that was tricky was fielding questions because as I was reading them they kept moving as more came in! Also, we couldn’t keep (and I hadn’t seen) the chat messages so if you left me a nice message please do tell me. The hard thing about doing a webinar is I have NO idea what you thought unless you tell me.

Remember I have two more webinars coming up. Many of last night’s attendees booked their places for the other two within minutes of the webinar finishing. Don’t delay! Understanding Teenagers is now 2/3 full and selling fast and I am sure that The Power of Sleep will sell out, too, as it’s such a universal need. It will help you and your teenagers sleep and you’ll get some really interesting insights.

Your questions answered

I have decided to answer all last night’s questions here, including the ones I did answer. As ever, I’m good to you!

Screen time and sleep

I didn’t talk about this in as much detail as I’d have liked. I’ll cover it more in Understanding Teenagers. I also mentioned it in the context of hindering sleep, which will be fully covered in The Power of Sleep. But here are the questions and brief answers on this topic.

Are televisions included in screen time?

They are screens but they are significantly less potentially problematic than phones, tablets and computers, for two reasons: 1) Although they do emit bright light (one of the reasons screens can hinder sleep) they tend to be much further from our eyes and so have less effect. 2) More importantly, they don’t bring notifications, and notifications are the big sleep-wrecking things about other screens. So it’s fine to watch TV in the evening. Especially as a family, as it can be bonding and relaxing.

We’ve fallen into the habit of watching family TV until 10pm & then everyone going to bed, so yes I’m wondering about the impact on sleep.

For the reasons above, this is theoretically fine. Doing something as a family is a really good habit to get into. HOWEVER, if anyone is finding sleep difficult, it’s worth doing an experiment for a few days to see if not watching TV (or switching off earlier) helps. I would also suggest you are a bit careful about choice of programmes, avoiding something over-exciting or frightening.

If sleep isn’t being affected by using screens right up till bedtime then is it that detrimental? They seem to think TVs are for “boomers”

I didn’t answer this at the time because I didn’t read the first part properly so didn’t understand! Sorry. I now do (I hope.) I think you’re saying that if someone is using screens till bedtime but still sleeping well, then surely it’s not a problem? Absolutely correct. (I will say this very clearly in the sleep webinar and explain why.) If the person is sleeping well for 7-8 hours for adults and 8-9 hours for teenagers and able to wake up without difficulty and not feel very tired during the day, they are not being affected by screens so there’s no problem.

“TVs for boomers”… *shrugs shoulders* First, I detest the word “boomers”, just as I detest the phrase “digital natives”, “Gen X” etc etc. It’s a lazy stereotype and only ever used insultingly. And insults are best ignored, in my view. Second, TVs are just tools, like computers, and happen to do fewer things than computers. which makes them less useful. Young people do watch TV – a lot, in many cases – and the fact that they prefer to watch TV not on a TV but a computer screen is just that: a fact. A neutral fact. Hence my shrugging shoulders. I don’t care whether someone watches TV on a TV or a watch (remember those TV watches that didn’t catch on!) as long as they fully understand the different pros and cons of each, in terms of sleep.

Is reading an ebook not recommended before bed/sleep?

Reading for pleasure before sleep is a really good thing to do and this includes on an ebook reader. The only thing I’d say is that the screen brightness should be turned down (so you read with a bedside light, just as if for a printed book) and, crucially, notifications are disabled (if any).

Does it make a difference when teenagers sleep? As in a lot of them are sleeping in the daytime and doing school work during the night.

Yes, it’s really important (not just for teenagers) to sleep at night and work/socialise/eat/play during the day. It’s how humans are wired. How you make them do this is going to depend on age, their personality and your relationship with them. I strongly suggest you get themselves educated by reading The Awesome Power of Sleep! It’s fascinating stuff and very practical. Sleep habits are very powerful, for good or for bad. Obviously, I will talk much more about this in the sleep webinar.

Online safety

How to warn about the real risks of online contact with strangers without catastrophising the dangers such as serious crime and harm to children that have occurred and are well publicised?

I do a lot of talks in schools about life online (and have written The Teenage Guide to Life Online) but I rarely cover online safety except in passing for the simple reason that schools usually deal with this very well as part of their PSHE and other teaching. There is also, as a helpful participant (thanks, Julia!) pointed out, some good advice on the NSPCC website. But the question also refers, I think, to my comments in the webinar where I cautioned against catastrophising because that drags teenagers down and makes them lost hope.

I think there are two things here. The first is wrong and the second is right.

1) Catastrophising about the current situation by repeating negative headlines that make out that everyone is going to be permanently damaged by this pandemic, that there’s no hope, we’re all doomed and the world is ending, probably tomorrow if not sooner

2) Telling young (and older!) people about the very serious things that can happen if we’re not careful online.

In my answer I pointed out that parents usually have the best sense of what their teenager needs to know. So, if this young person is very likely to make mistakes with online safety – because perhaps they are a risk-taker or particularly naive or easily led or have some dominant, risk-taking friends – then the parent would be sensible to tell the scare stories (without exaggerating or making things up, however.) But if the young person is already very worried about online safety or is generally quite or very anxious, they need those scare stories less or not at all. Parents are best placed to know this.

Emotions etc

What do you suggest for helping an angry teenager?

Tough one. It’s very upsetting seeing someone we love be angry. Note that anger – and especially in boys/men – can be a way of expressing sadness or other negative emotion. But anger is very natural and not, in itself, unhealthy. The best things to do are:

  • Try not to make them feel ashamed of an angry outburst. That doesn’t mean condoning it, as it doesn’t feel good for either party, but telling them that you understand, that you’re sorry they are feeling like this. Stay calm and walk away (without slamming a door or showing anger yourself) or just wait till it’s over. Then talk.
  • Try to find out what they’re really feeling (by talking afterwards). Are they angry about something in particular or just background angry? What makes them angry? Are they also sad or frustrated or worried? Try to get them to talk. Doing this on a walk or a car journey can help as eye contact is avoided and that can make it easier to express oneself.
  • Help them find practical – usually physical – outlets for the anger/emotions, whether that’s sport, music, games, hobby.
  • Teach them the power of saying sorry – and if they do apologise, accept it fully.
  • But if you feel this is a serious problem or you worry about the safety of themselves or anyone else, including you, do seek professional help. The first step could be through your GP. Or talk to a teacher.

How to differentiate from what is normal teenage behaviour or when some things aren’t quite right or further help is needed?

Always tricky. We naturally worry about our teenagers and sometimes this worry is justified but often it isn’t. My suggestions:

  • Look around you at the sons or daughters of friends – but be careful about unfairly comparing, as you will usually see the worst of your teenagers and the best of others.
  • Ask a teacher about your concerns, as they have interacted with hundreds of teenagers.
  • If the behaviour, over several weeks, is preventing your son or daughter from engaging in normal activity such as school, social life or previously enjoyed activities, then this is a sign that you might need to ask for help.
  • My book Blame My Brain is helpful in showing what is “normal” adolescent behaviour. And helpful for young people to read, as well as for you.

My daughter has withdrawn from friendships & is relying on three close friends. She’s anxious about going back to school – how do I encourage her to broaden her friendship group? She’s in Y11 so has had all the uncertainty of GCSEs to deal with & choosing where to go to 6th form – she’s staying at her school with her friends. Many thanks, this has been so useful!

I think there’s nothing wrong with having three close friends – quality is the goal with friends, not quantity! Y11 is often a tough time, especially at the moment, for reasons you give, and those three friends are really important for her. But I suggest you help her look for opportunities to gently widen her interests and when you sense that there is something she could do – for example, an after-school activity (in or out of school) or a new hobby – help her find the courage to go for it. Acknowledge that you understand any anxieties she has but gently and repeatedly tell her (and show her by your own example) that making new connections is really important and empowering.

I think your daughter will be fine. You are there as a strong support. Remember that safety-net model, though – allow her to fall but support her in getting back up again so that the success is hers, not yours.

My daughter’s routines are completely our of sync. Staying up awake until late and struggling to stay up during the day and how can we best support them before and when they return to school. She is anxious about the pressures of going back to school.

Several bits to that.

Routines: yes, as I said, routines are really important and I offered this as one of the strategies. You don’t say her age and that makes a difference in how you might address the problem. (Older teenagers will need to do this more or less on their own while younger ones will benefit from more direction from you.) See my comment above about sleeping at night and working during day. She needs to read about the importance of sleep before she’ll be motivated to change. I would encourage her to read The Awesome Power of Sleep (and perhaps you could both attend the sleep webinar – if you use one computer you can both watch on the same ticket, of course.) But she’s the one who needs to be motivated to build those healthy routines. Having said that, I think these bad habits will soon enough disappear once school starts again.

Supporting return to school: patience, empathy, gentleness. Avoid the “they must catch up lost schooling” meme. Help her look ahead to how she’ll feel in a few months. “You’ll be fine – I trust you – you’ve got through this.” Get her to voice the exact fears and then help her talk through how she’ll cope with them.

(The next question is closely connected so see the answer to that, too.)

What is the best strategy to support our teenagers back into school and normal social life. My daughter doesn’t want to engage with others and states she is happy in the lockdown.

There will be a significant number of young people (And it will help her to know this.) I empathise with being happy in lockdown: for many introverts, it’s our dream situation, which might seem bizarre to others! I suggest you read the book by Susan Cain: Quiet Power – Growing up as an introvert in a world that can’t stop talking. You will need to support her through going back to school with a firm message which is, in a nutshell, “You have to do this but I’m here to help you. It will be fine and you will cope.”

My son get anxious of what other kids think about him he struggles to make friends due to his development

This is incredibly normal. Painful but normal. Having said that, I obviously don’t know if you have any specific aspect of his development in mind: for example, perhaps he has some kind of challenge or special need that makes it more difficult for him to make friends. I think you might mean this and, if so, I am sorry. It is so hard for parents to watch their wonderful young person not being appreciated by others and having difficulty making friends. I think all you can do is keep reinforcing these messages:

  • “Just be yourself – you will find your place in the world but school can be difficult”
  • “Focus on all the things you enjoy doing, that make you happy, your skills and strengths”
  • “What other people think is their problem but actually they are mostly thinking and worrying about themselves”

Get him to spend as much time as possible working on the things he enjoys doing and give him pleasure and self-esteem. But don’t shield him too much from other people: he needs to learn how to make friends, the things that work and the things that don’t. It will happen one day.

My 13 year old won’t go outdoors because he is worried about getting Covid-19

I’ve had a number of conversations with teenagers with this specific worry. I think this is an example of a worry chain: your son is, I think, a worrier and COVID is giving rein to all the worries. All the other worries are being given a platform in the worry about COVID. He’s taken on board all these negative headlines I’ve been talking about and the two best things that will help him are:

  • The facts: help him investigate the statistics about how rarely young people become very ill with COVID. All the science is on his side: use it. You can’t give guarantees but you can help him put it in context.
  • Teach him coping strategies for all anxieties: breathing exercises and distraction activities. See my handouts on anxiety.

I work in a school, and before Christmas it felt like a constant battle getting a number of older teenagers to wear their masks or socially distance. It felt like they didn’t care about their own safety, or that of those around them. When we return to school, how do I encourage them to be responsible and understand the gravity of the situation without catastrophising or fear-mongering?

This question is really interesting in the context of the previous one! Yes, some young people are over-worried and others not worried enough. We will never change that: it’s human beings in all their glorious variety.

My answer is two-fold. I believe that mask-wearing has become more accepted; the masks are more comfortable; we feel less self-conscious; and most people of all ages, including teenagers, are complying more than a few months ago. Schools will also have policies and will reinforce the rules strictly.

But the other, more important, point is that teenagers can have a strong sense of social responsibility and can very often be prevailed upon to do things for the good of others. They are, most often, kind people who would care about the idea of making someone else ill. Since mask-wearing is more to protect others than to protect ourselves, it makes sense to emphasise that this is why we’re doing it and this is why they must. Prevail upon their sense of decency and justice.

However, it’s also worth remembering that the prefrontal cortex, as I said, is the part of the brain we use for looking ahead and making rational decisions and it’s not fully developed in adolescents. Therefore, we might have to help some of them look ahead and rationalise why we are wearing masks: “We are wearing them because imagine how awful you’d feel if you infected someone more vulnerable than you.”

I support a 14 year old girl who was recently abused.  I only know this because her mum told me.  Any advice on how to help her open up to talk about it?  She’s very quiet.

I am very sorry to hear this, of course. And it’s wonderful that you want to help. I’m assuming this girl’s abuse is being dealt with by appropriate professionals? Given that, I don’t think you need to require her to open up about it but just be there for her, supporting her in whatever way she needs. I’m assuming she’s already talked about it to her mum and that her mum would access some counselling or therapy if that were required. In that case, as I say, it isn’t your responsibility to get her to open up. Talking to someone about abuse requires special training.

I hope that has helped! thank you for your questions. Do let me have any feedback from last night. Don’t forget all your handouts.


Don’t delay booking either or both the next two more webinars coming up. NOTE: buying a ticket for the first one gives you £5 off the second. You’ll receive the discount link in your email confirmation so book the first one FIRST!

  1. Understanding Teenagers – Mar 4th 7.30pm
  2. The Power of Sleep – Mar 18th 7.30pm
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5 Responses

  1. Hi Nicola, your webinar was very helpful and thank you for recapping the questions on your blog. Our 13year old son already had limits on screen time and no screens after 8pm rule. He hates any rules and wants complete freedom online. So we agreed to flex on screen time/gaming, As much as he wants but chores and homework must be complete first and no screens after 8pm(TV ok). We did a trial for a week. He got lots of extra screen time but then put off chores and homework until after 8pm. Generally his mode was not improved and deteriorated when we reminded him of the rules that he had agreed to and written down. Last night we told him we may need to end the trial if not working. This was met with strong resentment, tears, anger. Now wants not rules whatsoever. Says his close friends have no restrictions and we are blocking his friends and controlling his life. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    1. He’s really pushing you, isn’t he? Sounds to me as though you are doing the right thing and need to stay firm – though that can also include renegotiating. He didn’t, according to your explanation, stick to his part of the bargain and has behaved as though he thinks he can just get away with that. Ask him how he thinks as an adult he would be allowed to break contracts or agreements.
      As to saying his friends have no restrictions, that’s the oldest trick in the book! He’s either a) wrong or b) his friends’ parents are not doing the right thing.
      I believe you need to be firm – because you care about him – and explain very calmly that everyone has to have restrictions for their own health and future success, that you also live by restrictions (and make sure you do), that you absolutely understand how much he wants to have no restrictions but that it’s not possible because you care about him too much. Then it’s a matter of renegotiating with him what the restrictions will be, state what your own restrictions are (ideally the same as his) and starting again. You’re in charge: you know more, you have a more developed brain and you know what’s right.
      I know it sounds simple… Expect resistance but don’t let it stop you doing the right thing.

  2. Thank you Nicola. Your advice is superb. I’ve been reading your blogs and responses to other question which have been helpful too. But yes Monday was a low point for us.
    Interesting yesterday, Tuesday, we prepared somewhat along the lines you suggest. Checked with his close friends parents and yes there are various restriction/limits that his friends have, just different to ours. So we sat down for a chat last night, my wife and I had agreed in advance our red lines, no devices in bedroom overnight, gaming PC always downstairs etc and while we wish for no screen time after 8pm we rebranded this. New approach is we want to have family time after 8pm when our little one goes to bed, we want to watch netflix together, chat, read etc and have some time together. This in turn will fix issue of interactive screen before bedtime as the science says this is really bad. TV, reading, music etc are all really good ways to wind down at end of day. Bizarrely we just began the conversation when my son apologised me for how he had behaved the previous evening. I was very grateful and relieved. We discussed the new approach, giving him the flexibility he wants(ie no nagging or reminders) but again chores, homework are priority and he must mange this himself. Yes 8pm is roughly the time to shift to family time but we won’t be draconian about this. It may vary each day. Still all seems to be going to plan on Wednesday. We are hoping we are over the worst (until next time).. I’ll repost in a week or so just so you can see the full cycle of this particular episode 🙂
    Many thanks!
    Kieran

    1. Kieran, I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear this. Thank you for taking the time to tell me. It means a lot to my own motivation to carry on doing what I do.

      Your son apologising to you, without being asked, is MASSIVE. I am in awe of him for that as it’s really hard to do, for adults let alone for young people. I imagine he felt a whole load better when he did. I hope he can use that experience to make it easier the next time. And indeed, if there is a next time, do give him huge praise for his strength of character in being able to apologise and get him to notice how it made him feel. How you accept an apology is also really important and will help him continue to be a person who can see his mistakes, own up and learn from them.

      As you say, there will most likely be a “next time” for a problem/argument/bad day – that’s life. But each survival is a success or at least the foundation for learning and growing.

      Good luck! And thanks again.

  3. Nice to hear this Nicola. You certainly deserve to receive the positive feedback. Indeed harmony is restored in our household, day 3 and still going well. I just said to my son again after seeing your note earlier, thanks for how he handled the situation, it makes us all feel much better. I’ll post in a week or 2 just to let you know how the flexibility and understand plays out over a longer period. Thanks again. Kieran

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