Covid’s children: How lockdown has affected adolescents

Effects of a prolonged state of physical isolation may be seen for years to come

collage2 An endless wait: Taera Singh [left], Trisha Karki [bottom right] and Souryadeep Sardar have endured multiple postponements of all-India entrance exams

As schools remain shut, with lockdown persisting in varying degrees, adolescents are in a prolonged state of physical isolation from their peers, teachers, extended family and society. “Being in a continued state of lockdown could change the chemistry between kids and parents,” said Dr M. Vijayalakshmi, a paediatrician in Kochi, who has two teenage daughters. “Parents are worried about so many things. Many of them have lost jobs or taken a salary cut. They’ve also had to shift to a work-from-home model, manage children round-the-clock, and deal with fears relating to the pandemic.”

In the first few weeks of lockdown, she and her husband, Pradeep Palazi, kept the girls amused with baking and board games. But, these activities soon fizzled out, and the girls spent most of their time on gadgets. “I gave up trying to monitor it, as I was unable to control it,” said the mother. “Most parents are now letting their kids do whatever they want. There is this real feeling of helplessness.”  

According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,  published in June, loneliness due to lockdown could lead to high rates of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents. It said clinical services should, therefore, offer preventive support and make early interventions.  

“Humans are conditioned to certain stimuli,” said psychotherapist Farishta Dastur Mukerji of Kolkata. “A pandemic and lockdown are not in our mental schema. Since we were not prepared for these circumstances, our bodies are finding ways to cope. People are experiencing sleep disturbances because of an increase in anxiety and frustration, as no one knows how long this situation will last.” 

farishta Farishta Dastur Mukerji

Children have been spending more time alone, and on screens. This has led to dry eyes, back pain and neck pain, as well as psychological problems. “Online academic classes put a lot of pressure on pre-adolescent children,” said Farishta, who is also a school counsellor. “There is such an information overload. Kids are not processing most of it.” 

Adolescents seek independence and have a constant need to establish their own identities. Lockdown has curtailed opportunities to indulge this urge. They also have to deal with perfect life syndrome on social media. “Adolescents are more ‘at risk’, as for them, the manifestations of being isolated are more,” said Farishta. “Either they withdraw, or they go into conflict with their parents. At that age, they don’t really want to talk to their parents, they would rather talk to a third person, and parents need to understand this. In extreme cases, suicidal thoughts crop up as life plans have changed. These cases will need clinical assessment.”

Garima Aggarwal, who owns Peekaboo Patterns, a company that sells furniture, furnishings and accessories for children in Chennai, believes that adolescents need to be given space. She tells her clients that it is no use nagging or disciplining children now; instead they should empower and trust children to take their own decisions. 

Garima-Aggarwal Garima Aggarwal

“If you want your kids to change, lead by example,” said Garima. “Sitting them down and talking to them doesn’t work. Right now, you just have to let them be. You haven’t been through a pandemic; neither have they, so stop judging them. If I have to find fault with my kids for petty things like not eating healthily or exercising, or not bathing or sleeping on time, I would constantly be nagging them. All these things don’t matter right now.”

Children with behavioural problems

For parents of children with behavioural problems, however, lockdown has presented different challenges. Mallika Sharma*, 42, has a 14-year-old son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “Lockdown has exacerbated my son’s behavioural problems, which are now at their worst ever,” said Mallika, who lives in Bengaluru. “It is difficult to keep a child with a lot of energy locked up in an apartment.” 

As lockdown wore on, her son lost interest in everything, except his gadget. He had enjoyed going downstairs to play with his friends, but no longer. A therapist told Mallika and her husband, Pranav*, since the child was having online schooling a few hours a day, further screen time would be detrimental. “But he would hit us and destroy things around the house if his gadget was taken away,” said Mallika. “He does not know what to do with himself if he doesn’t have it in his hands.” She often ends up smacking him or saying something hurtful that she later regrets. “I feel pushed to react like this,” she said. “The verbal and physical abuse has put a strain on our relationship with our son.” 

Alokika Bharwani, a psychologist in Mumbai, said her adolescent clients told her that increased time with parents was getting to them. While some of them have experienced borderline emotional and verbal abuse, for those with dysfunctional families, the experience has been worse. 


“These are abnormal times,” said Alokika. “Parents, too, are grappling with the new normal. Days are blurred and merging into each other. How do you keep your child occupied? There has been sleeplessness, boredom and a lack of routine.” But adolescents are being proactive when it comes to seeking help for their mental health. “They are finding therapists online and contacting them through Instagram,” she said. “Some kids say that their parents are not encouraging this.”

Neha Deshpande* was relieved when her 17-year-old son, Aryan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, reached out to his therapist during lockdown. “He told his therapist that he was frightened and needed his sessions,” said Neha, a consumer insights professional in Mumbai. “He is in junior college and, for him, being away from his friends is a big deal. He feels like his whole life has been taken away. He was missing his usual routine, and his anxiety levels rose, leading to a lot of mumbling and self-talk.” Neha set up weekly calls on Zoom so that he could interact with his friends. “I didn’t want my child to go into a depression because of the unnatural situation,” she said.

Children with special needs

Lockdown has been debilitating for children with special needs and exhausting for their parents. At the Raksha Society, an institute for children with special needs in Kochi, teachers in masks work tirelessly to engage their wards, who are at home. “Lockdown happened so quickly and we were initially not equipped to support the children online,” said Elizabeth Philip, principal of Raksha Society. “Many parents are from lower-income households and do not own smartphones. For those who do, we slowly began engaging with the children on WhatsApp, asking them to send photographs of activities or chores they had done at home. Sometimes, their data runs out and we only hear from them the following month.” 

As these children cannot follow instructions on regular videos, the teachers are making a video themselves on how to grow microgreens, so the children have an activity to do at home every day. “We need to explain slowly, in a manner they understand,” said Elizabeth. 

Organisations like Raksha give parents of children with special needs a much-needed break for a few hours each day; this has been taken away from them. “The parents are frustrated and often call the teachers to talk about problems they are facing, and ask for help on how to deal with behavioural issues,” said Elizabeth Shirley, headmistress at Raksha Special School. “When the children hear their teacher’s voice on the phone, they often calm down, and some of them pick up their school bags thinking they are off to school. It is imperative for these children to be stimulated, to observe and interact with people, which motivate them to develop cognitive skills. For most of them, the inactivity that has come with lockdown will make them regress.” As these children are in the high-risk category, another challenge is for them to learn aspects related to the pandemic, like how to wear a mask and do physical distancing.  

Gayathri Dharmanand, 14, who has cerebral palsy, mild retardation and autism, is a student at Raksha. She spends many hours a day watching cartoons on TV at home. “It has been very difficult to keep her engaged during lockdown and she often gets into a bad mood,” says her mother, Bindu. “As we cannot get therapists to come home, or give her online classes, she is regressing as time goes by. Since she needs constant attention, I feel I can’t do anything properly. If I’m in the kitchen cooking, or doing housework, I’m always distracted, worrying about how she is coping in the next room.”

College conundrum

Students who were to have started college this year have found themselves in a bewildering and unpredictable situation. The economic and political fallouts of the pandemic, coupled with the restrictions, have forced many of them to make difficult, heartbreaking decisions that could alter their future. 

Many students were mid-way through their 12th grade board exams when the lockdown was announced. As the remaining exams were postponed, they continued to study for months on end, dealing with multiple postponements, until exams were cancelled in July. After months of hard work, they haven’t had a chance to unwind, or de-stress with friends. They are also experiencing  tremendous anxiety as there is no end in sight to the pandemic. “Some parents are dealing with tantrums from their 18-year-olds who they say are behaving like 12-year-olds,” said Vijayalakshmi. 

Dr-Vijayalakshmi Dr M. Vijayalakshmi

“Students who have got admission into colleges abroad are worried about when international flights will start, and if they will get visas on time,” she said. “Some are wondering if their parents can still afford to send them. With many colleges shifting to online classes, they are upset about not being able to live on campus or make new friends. I hope these feelings are temporary and not long term, as they could lead to post traumatic stress disorder, or an exacerbation of pre-existing mental illnesses. A lot depends on the socio-economic situation of the household.”

While students going abroad have already got admission into colleges, it’s the students applying to Indian colleges that have been left most unsettled. Usually, board exams results are announced in May; this year, they were only announced in July. For those applying to professional colleges, since common entrance exams have been postponed, there is no inkling of how admissions will happen, when classes will start, or when students can physically be on campus. Students who took a gap year after completing their 12th grade in 2019, to take coaching classes to get into a good college this year, are the worst hit. They feel they have fallen behind their peers, who are now in their second year of college. 

Taera Singh, who just completed her 12th grade from The Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, has been preparing for a few competitive exams in law, which have repeatedly been postponed. “Different exams have different formats, so we need to know the dates of each to prepare properly, and this has caused a lot of anxiety,” said Taera. “Usually, colleges in India start in July, and we should have been in college right now. Many of my friends binge-watch Netflix and sleep late, but I can’t do that as I need to wake up early for online coaching.” 

She said it’s been a tricky balance between studying and taking breaks, which are necessary to avoid burnout. “Sometimes, I really don’t know if I am a school student or a college student,” said Taera. “A lot of my friends are going abroad to study, and I was looking forward to spending time and having fun with them, but that never happened.”

Souryadeep Sardar is exhausted. The 18-year-old from Kolkata has been studying for at least 10 hours a day, since November last year, for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, the Joint Entrance Examination, and his board exams. He was relieved when the board exams got cancelled, as he could focus on the entrance exams, which have been postponed to September. He is anxious about further postponements. He says that studying endlessly has been draining and monotonous. “No one imagined this would happen,” said Souryadeep. “Since these are such competitive exams, it’s been so tiring and stressful.”

Trisha Karki, from Delhi, has been preparing for competitive exams in architecture, which have also been postponed. “I took it easy in May, but now I have my focus back,” said Trisha. “Because of the uncertainty, my focus varies, which results in irritation. My friends who are going abroad have already secured their admissions, but for me, the pressure is continuously on.”

Students who just finished their 12th grade feel that their rites of passage have been taken away. As graduations, farewells and award ceremonies have moved online, they feel a sense of loss and grief about the important transitions in their lives. These feelings often manifest in sadness, anger or irritability.

Tarika Vohra recently completed her schooling from the Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai and has accepted a position at Columbia University in New York. She is scheduled to join in September, but since the US embassy in Mumbai is closed, she is unsure when she will get her visa. While Tarika enjoyed spending time with her family during lockdown, and interacting with her friends on video calls late into the night, there is a lingering sadness about the way her final year in school ended. 

“We were supposed to go on a class trip to Jamnagar, but that got cancelled,” said Tarika. “We were supposed to wear saris for the first time at an event in school and had a holiday planned to Goa after exams, but both got cancelled. We were looking forward to meeting friends and going out, but that never happened. Even our awards ceremony was held online.”

tarika-viraj Tarika Vohra [left] and Viraj Bakliwal

Eighteen-year-old Viraj Bakliwal, who has accepted a place at New York University, has similar sentiments. “The time between board exams finishing and going to college was supposed to be spent with friends and going out,” said Viraj, who lives in Delhi. “But everything has been taken away from us and we feel robbed.” He said that many of his friends had taken to cooking and baking during lockdown, and some of them had started small businesses selling cakes, cookies and dips from home. 

Some students have decided to take a gap year because of the pandemic. Mrittika Mandal, who finished her 12thgrade from Loreto House, Kolkata, was supposed to start college in the UK in September. But with so much uncertainty, she has decided to take a gap year, and focus on getting into a better college next year. 

In 2018, Apoorvi Bharat Ram founded The Happiness Project, when someone close to her battled depression. The organisation, which focuses on mental health, works with disadvantaged children who have no access to counsellors or doctors. “There has been an overall increase in anxiety with the pandemic,” said Apoorvi, 18, who recently completed her 12th grade from The Shri Ram School, Moulseri, in Gurgaon and has accepted an offer from The University of Pennsylvania in the US. “We are sitting at home without any structure or distractions. Sources of interaction are especially important at our age. Not being able to spend time with friends before joining college has created a lot of sadness. 

"You are just stuck with your thoughts. Usually, if you’re feeling low, you can go out with friends and forget your problems, but when you don’t have these distractions, small problems get bigger. A lot of my friends who dealt with mental health issues in school have now fallen back into them. They have no regular routine or motivation, and are sitting at home doing nothing. Depression feels like that, so being in this state makes them feel like they are back there again.” 

The Happiness Project is developing an app for people to diagnose themselves. “We also have a form that is specific to COVID-19-related anxiety and give tips on how to deal with it.” The principal of her school has reached out to her and her batchmates to mentor the juniors to ensure their mental health is in check. 

Many adolescents have enjoyed spending quality time with their families during lockdown. Eating meals together as a family, they say, is a luxury they never had. They’ve also learnt to cook, wash dishes, and clean rooms and bathrooms. They say they now realise the value of handymen like plumbers, electricians and carpenters, and appreciate the hard work put in by domestic help.

Flourishing in lockdown

For some youngsters, lockdown has been a largely positive and productive experience. “Most of my friends have hated lockdown, but for me it’s been a period of growth,” said Rehan Chagla, 18. He recently graduated at the top of his class from The Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai, and has accepted an offer from Christ College, Cambridge University. “My exams got cancelled just before lockdown, and I’ve used my time productively. It’s important to keep yourself busy so that your mental health is good. I’ve learnt cooking, have been working out, and have self-studied biology. I have also been volunteering online with Angel Xpress, an NGO that works with underprivileged children. 

apoorvi-rehan-anoushka (From left) Apoorvi Bharat Ram, Rehan Chagla and Anoushka Aggarwala

Trishla Gupta, a 12th grader in Delhi, is in the process of converting a few rooms in a government school into a science centre, with exhibits that include a solar system, an elliptical carrom board, anatomy models and water wheels. “The society I live in uses an old diesel rickshaw to collect garbage from homes,” said Trishla, 17. “It’s an old two-stroke diesel engine that gives out noxious fumes. After a lot of ideating, experimenting and engineering, I converted an e-rickshaw, which was a passenger carrier, to a garbage carrier.” During this time, Trishla also wrote a research paper on the coral reef, and is making a workbook for computational thinking. “Delhi is opening up, but we are not going out at all,” said Trishla.

Trishla-gupta Purposeful in the pandemic: Trishla Gupta modified an e-rickshaw into a garbage carrier

Manav Chordia, from Chennai, is relieved that his 12th grade exams got cancelled. “I was worried about getting Covid-19 while taking the exams,” said Manav, 18. He hasn’t seen his friends for more than three months, but he’s been busy. “During lockdown, I broadened my understanding of Swift, a programming language by Apple,” said Manav. “I utilised my time to see what skill others were using to make apps, and made an app called DeftScanner, a document scanning app built around privacy.”

Lockdown has been an eye-opening experience for Anoushka Aggarwala, who recently began her 12th grade at La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata. “At first, I was heartbroken, as I was so looking forward to my final year in school,” said Anushka, 17. “It was supposed to be our best year, during which we would hold certain positions and earn accolades that we had been working towards for so long.” 

As an athlete, she was looking forward to participating in a district-level meet in May, which got cancelled. “In retrospect, I was chasing trivial things; I now realise it was a myopic view,” said Anoushka. “If the Olympics could get cancelled, my race was nothing.” 

Her perspective changed after she began volunteering for the NGO Kolkata Gives, which gave provisions to daily wage workers during lockdown. “People were trying to make ends meet, and here I was, worried about a race,” she said. She also wrote a paper for the Bombay Institute of Critical Analysis and Research on how the pandemic has disrupted the social order. “The busier you keep yourself, the easier it is going to be on you; everyone has spurts of anxiety, but the only thing you can remind yourself is that you are not alone in this. We need to realise that we can grow through this and this will not last forever.”

*Some names have been changed


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