How can I get my teenager to engage in online school?

Q: How can I get my 15-year-old to engage in online schooling? He is stressing about his workand finding it difficult to focus at home. PreCovid, he was a driven and conscientious student who always did well in school. But in this latest lockdown he is struggling and has little interest in schoolwork. He says he can’t focus and feels depressed at not having a structured classroom environment. I think he is lonely and misses his friends but he does not talk much about his feelings.

I try to encourage him to Zoom call his friends but he is not doing this. He does go out for walks on his own but refuses to come with me on my walks. How can I encourage a better commitment to completing work without having to watch over his every move? Doing this is stressful for me let alone him. His Junior Cert mocks were cancelled which was a relief to him but the uncertainty about whether the actual exams will go ahead is an added stress for us both.

A: The third lockdown and the return of school closures are taking their toll on the physical and mental health of our teenagers. Like your son, many young people are struggling with online classes and study. Sitting in front of the screen all day for online classes and then having to study on top of this is just not working for many students.

A special need for nourishing advice
Most young people are social learners and need real contact with their peers and teachers to keep them engaged in learning. Uncertainty multiplies this stress – they may be studying for exams that will not happen and they fear falling behind if they stop studying.

Further, the losses of social activities for teenagers is particularly acute at their stage of development when their emotional formation should take place in peer groups through real-world experiences (and most of these are outside the formal curriculum). As the third lockdown progresses, we are seeing big increases in teenage depression and anxiety.

Helping your son
In helping your son, try to take a step back and reduce the pressure you are placing on him about schoolwork. It strikes me that he is already stressed and worried about his schoolwork, but you becoming stressed about this will only make this worse (and add to your own personal stress). Instead, it is important to focus on what is important – preserving your own and your son’s mental health as you get through this crisis.

Acknowledge the struggle he is going through
Take time to listen to your son’s stress and upset. Communicate to him that his struggles and feelings are completely understandable in the context of what is going on in the world. As you talk, be wary of jumping in too early with solutions and instead encourage him to think for himself what might help. A good way to do this is to pick up on his strengths and to ask questions. For example, you might say, “It is good that you are saying how you feel, what might help you cope better” or, “You are a conscientious student, what would help you keep some study going”. Rather than expecting the same study as before lock down, encourage your son to make smaller, more realistic goals for himself.

Contact his school and seek support
Contact his school to explain how your son is struggling and reach out for support. Online lessons are new for schools and teachers as well as parents and pupils. Everyone is learning how best to make them work for all students. Rather than filling the whole day with live online classes, I suspect it might be better to have less formal classes and more individual study in the day.

If you contact the school, they may be able to provide advice and individual education support and possibly arrange smaller online classes or different learning formats for key subjects. They may also be able to arrange counselling for your son (via a school counsellor) or make a referral to a local mental health service, if that is helpful.

Create a balanced routine for the whole day
Creating a balanced routine is one of the most important strategies for surviving the lockdown. When negotiating a plan for the day with your son, don’t just focus on classroom and study times, and instead make sure to plan breaks and relaxation times. Help him identify all the creative, relaxing activities he can get involved in, whether this is reading, music, games or anything else that works for him.

During the lockdown, I have suggested to families to build their routine around mealtimes and to make these relaxed times with the family coming together. Where possible, set aside a bit of time to eat together as a family and use this time to chat. If possible, involve your son in planning meals and sharing the cooking and preparation. Taking responsibility for simple household chores like this will make a big difference to his well-being.

Encourage your son to stay involved in healthy activities
Continue to encourage your son to mind his mental health through including healthy activities in his routine. Don’t take it personally that he won’t go on walks with you at the moment as it is normal for teenagers his age to want to be independent and not “seen out” with their parents. Instead be pleased that he is going out for walks and try to build on this. Is there a friend or cousin he could meet for a socially distant walk when he is out? Could he sometimes do a helpful task when he is out, such as doing the shopping etc.

As well as encouraging him to stay connected with friends, try to lure him to family events at home. Perhaps you can have a games night after his favourite dinner or join him watching an episode of his favourite TV series each evening. Having a few connected family events like this will reduce stress and keep communication open.

Prof. John Sharry, originally published in The Irish Times, February 2021. Read more of his articles here.