COVID-19 & confinement : opinion

Teenagers in confinement

A situation that runs counter to the needs of adolescents


How is confinement, a bubble of family omnipresence, experienced by adolescents, who, in order to construct their identities, have just as much need to distance themselves from their parents, to see their friends, and to be alone?

Fabienne Glowacz, Professor of Psychology, highlights the specific needs of adolescents in full development, as well as the risks of inequalities in this current crisis. According to her, it will be essential to offer young people – who have been somewhat "forgotten" - a space to decode what they are going through and how to move forward. Why not consider doing this through culture?


Confinement - adolescent development on hold?

Like all of us, adolescents are experiencing an exceptional phenomenon. However, this confinement and the limits on movement, risk going against their developmental process, and hindering their autonomy from the family and their psychological construction. Young people build themselves through their experiences and relationships at school, through their activities and leisure time with their groups of friends, their boyfriend or girlfriend, and with adults other than their parents, who are all significant figures and reference points. All of these "resources" are presently unavailable, or severely limited. This period of building their personality and identity is undermined without this availability. Adjustment, creativity and resilience is required to compensate for this disconnect with the outside world.

What are the specific needs of teenagers? How are these threatened at the moment?

Adolescence, a complex but very important period of life, is characterised by various "outside" needs (others, friends) as well as "inside" needs. Adolescents need to be alone, to have their own world, their own borders, their own space to think, imagine, and dream. "The bedroom" is this intimate space that is their own. This need for intimacy may be compromised with the omnipresence of parents and siblings, even more so if the confined living space is small and overcrowded. This is a first form of social inequality between young people in confinement (housing, available space, garden or no garden, access to digital technology, etc.), and young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds will feel this period of confinement more strongly.

The need to dream, to imagine, to escape through thought may also be affected by confinement and the pandemic. How will teenagers be able to react to the upheavals of the adult, social, economic and medical world, when they feel so invulnerable? This is inevitably anxiety-provoking. Some will be in denial about the impact of this pandemic, others will be paralyzed by the stress it generates, and others may dream of a better world and start building it in their heads. Indeed, maybe not only in their heads, because teenagers need to feel like actors in their own lives, and they may be feeling forgotten in the present situation. Here, they are somehow reduced to a kind of passivity. It would be interesting to engage them more from their homes in actions of mutual aid and solidarity, thus finding a way for them to participate in the struggle.

Do social networks play a role?

It is clear that this situation leads to hyper-connection! Even though virtual contacts cannot replace a real-world exchange with subtlety, laughter, touch, and atmosphere, the virtual world is a window to the outside world, and is a response to a need that young people feel at the moment. Parents may need to take a different look at this issue during confinement. But let's not forget the importance of parental supervision, and of clear rules, because that is another need that's being shattered: structure.

Is structure still very important to teens?

The question of structure is crucial for young people who also need to wander, to dream, to hang out... School, in particular, provides this, both in terms of content (subjects, topics, learning, etc.) and in terms of substance (precise timetables). It is difficult for a teenager to develop this structure alone. Some families will make up for this lack of school structure with a schedule. At the same time, rule-breaking is also a part of adolescence! Again, a balance needs to be found.

In some homes rules have become more vague or non-existent, haven’t they?

Indeed, they have. And this is another form of inequality amongst adolescents brought about by this confinement. Besides housing, the experience of confinement will depend on the family climate, and the quality of relationships. For youths exposed to tension, stress, domestic violence or violent attitudes, the experience will be different from youths who live in a family environment where people know how to talk and respect each other. The economic situation of parents in this time of crisis also gives rise to strong inequalities in feelings. Some parents have lost their jobs or part of their income, and some young people are deprived of an essential student job. The quality of food, and access to a place within the home to play sports are other potentially "stressful" factors which have a psychological impact on young people.

Is it, therefore, essential for them to talk?

This touches on another need of adolescents: to find meaning, to be safe, reassured. Even though they are not always willing to open up or talk, it is important to communicate with them. Little attention is paid to them in the media, apart from announcements about schooling. But how do they feel, how do they understand decisions and issues, how do they see the future? Young people are confronted with the powerlessness of mankind in the face of the virus, and death. They have a real need for meaning. Not all families can answer these questions, or solicit them, in the same way. In some homes, people will exchange, share their feelings, analyse the true from the false. And in others, not at all. It will be essential to offer young people a space to decode what is happening. But, unfortunately, the moment they will be able to do this will almost coincide with the end of the school year.

What are the prospects for the future, from a teenager's perspective?

It is shocking that more than a third of humanity is at a standstill. For some of teens, they are thinking about, or may start thinking about, societal, humanitarian and ecological projects. For others, this is less the case, or not the case at all. Teenagers are witnesses, like all of us, to this unique experience, and the actions of solidarity that it has generated. Either they experience it in their close circle, or they hear about it. Some initiatives are truly exemplary for them. An interesting approach could be to use art and culture to talk about this crisis and mobilise "emblematic figures" (from the world of music, for example) to address them, put into words what they can experience, and offer them models they can identify with. Culture is particularly challenged at the moment, but it may be one of the "ways out" for young people, a way to digest the traumatic impacts of what we are going through.


Fabienne Glowacz is about to launch an online survey aimed at teenagers, addressing different facets of their experiences during this period of confinement.

FabienneGlowaczFabienne Glowacz is a Professor at the Faculty of Psychology, Logopaedics and Educational Sciences of the University of Liège, head of the Department of Psychology of Delinquency, Social Maladjustments and Integration Processes. She also manages the Adaptation, Resilience and Change Research Unit. In particular, she works on various issues related to adolescence, including resilience processes, violence, cyber-violence, intimacy, romantic relationships, and consumerism, to name but a few.

Share this news