One of the nicest parts of my job has always been talking to young people; students, teens, and other young adults about their lives. These days, as I no longer work in a university, I chat weekly with the young people I meet on podcasts, in webinars, or who interview me for their projects and articles. Recently I’ve been asking them how they feel about the next few months, about coming out of lockdown, and the start of a new academic year in September.

Three themes

Interestingly, three main themes have come up time and again. I thought it would be helpful to share those back with you in this blog. I’m currently also sharing them when I give talks and webinars to teachers and university staff, but parents need to be hearing them too, of course.

The more we understand about our young people’s worries, the more we can support them, build their confidence, and coach them through the tricky times.

“Socialising with friends and family again can feel quite daunting after feeling alone and isolated in lockdown.”

First up is a significant worry about their ‘lost’ social skills. They feel that they have forgotten how to make friends, they worry that people won’t be interested in them, that they have nothing to say anymore, or that they will have lost the ability to connect with others. They tell me that “everyone has lost some friends during this pandemic”. This adds to their sadness.

They worry too about “making new friends, as it is nearly impossible to be close to someone without meeting them”. One girl told me “This lack of wider interaction with people who aren’t close friends has made people more self-conscious in social situations”.

There is also the worry about groups and mixing, after a year of isolation, and being told to ‘fear others’. “Some of my friends are anxious about the prospect of being in big social situations, e.g., clubs, after a long time of conditioning ourselves to fear social contact!”.

Unsurprisingly “It makes me very anxious to leave the house, especially having seen some of my friends flouting lockdown and gathering rules” and one student said, “I’m quite concerned about my mental health, having suffered from suicidal thoughts and depression—these conditions came and went with lockdown, but each lockdown made it worse and harder to “bounce back”.

What can we do?

Whilst understandable (as all their concerns are), we can be reassuring, explain that it will take time to feel fully relaxed around other people, that it is natural to be worried about crowds or busy environments, and that a practical approach will be to ease themselves back in gradually. They could choose people to spend time with who they feel comfortable around, and gradually build on that small cohort. They have had a difficult year, and it isn’t suddenly going to get easier. We can be understanding, gentle and encouraging as they may need to take baby steps to reconnect and socialise once more. If they have persistent mental health issues, then they should speak with their GP, or school counsellor if they have one.

They worry about their ‘academic skills gap’

The second big theme is about lost academic knowledge, skills, and opportunities. They worry that they ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. That there is work that they have missed but are not sure what it might be. That they have been left behind or will struggle next year. This is clearly a topic for schools and universities to pick up on, address and plan for, but our young people are not yet hearing the reassuring messages they need to, to help them sleep easier at night.

When asking about the next academic year I was told the big issues were “losing all the knowledge and skills I had, from being away from studies for so long last year” and experiencing a feeling of being “unable to have the resources to do well in exams e.g., libraries, lecturers”. There was of course the universal issue (and here we can all empathise!) “screen-fatigue from online learning all-day”.

What can we do?

It may help them to know that they are not alone if they are feeling these things, that an entire generation (and indeed the whole world) is dealing with this, and thus schools, universities and colleges will all be aware of the need to prepare them, help them to catch up and ensure that they are ready for whatever comes next academically.

Tell them they should pace themselves, not push themselves too hard, it’s been an exhausting year, and in the longer term they will be where they need to be, but they also need to look after their physical and mental health, and spend time reconnecting with friends.

“The future feels very uncertain”

“One of the biggest concerns at the moment about being a student is understanding what the future holds for us, after college, getting a job, in the workplace. The future feels very uncertain.”

This was one of the strongest themes in all my conversations with young people recently. They have a real sense of apprehension, of uncertainty and worry, not just about their future in terms of their careers/ work, but also in terms of climate change, financial stress and accommodation/ housing issues.

Comments varied from “I’m most concerned about employment after university” and “I don’t want my education to go to waste” to “Career prospects for those about to leave university are uncertain. We don’t know how COVID has affected employment, and there are high levels of unemployment”.

Several also talked about their wider political and environmental concerns, “There is definitely a sense that, because there is so little time left to sort out global warming before it’s irreversible, the world will just get worse from here for future generations.”

What can we do?

We can encourage them to get involved politically, and with environmental campaigns of course, but also to make sure that they take every opportunity to access careers advice at school or university/ college, keep open minds about career pathways and options, and build a CV slowly through new opportunities wherever they arise. It’s also important for them to be financially educated, to understand budgets and credit/ debt, so talk to them about this, and look at resources like Blackbullion for more free ideas and information.

We have probably never lived in more ‘interesting times’, and for our teens and young adults it can feel sometimes overwhelming. They are a young generation with a lot on their minds and being aware of their worries can help us to help them.

Let’s do what we can to support them.