In the midst of a pandemic, teenagers became critical members of society

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Around the country, a swathe of teenage workers have been quietly going about their business as shelf stackers and cashiers at the nation’s supermarkets. In better, pre-coronavirus times, parents encouraged them to find after-school jobs; to help them develop financial independence, self-esteem and personal maturity.

Little did they know that these children would soon be considered essential workers. In the midst of a pandemic these teenagers have become critical members of society. Their work is contributing to the mental and physical health of the community at large.

Our teens have had to give up socialising with their friends and a casual hug or handshake in greeting is now a thing of the past. No longer can they play sports where physical contact is essential, and they have been denied the prospect of attending their school formals or deb balls; the function numbers just too great a risk.

When they should be packing for their overseas school trips, preparing for class excursions, and exploring romantic and intimate relationships, our teenagers are having to miss out. For them, this year at least, there will be no school camps, no concerts or music festivals, and no touching. They have lost some of those fundamental rites of passage that contribute to their transition to adulthood. Instead, they have the responsibility of being frontline workers, getting up for a 4am shift to stock shelves, sometimes being the only point of contact in someone’s day.

Their work has enabled families to eat and helped them to feel calm. When people walk into supermarkets with well stocked shelves they feel safe. The early panic buying led to a whole range of feelings about scarcity which created anxiety amongst shoppers.

Being a teenager in lockdown meant adjusting to new codes of behaviour, vastly different school expectations and increased family interaction and obligations. At the same time, they struggled with the normal challenges of adolescence; physical and hormonal changes, and the need for independence.

Dr Mikaela Smee, a clinical psychologist from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, says that it’s important for parents and guardians to continue to provide opportunities for adolescents to be able to achieve their developmental milestones. “The teenager’s brain is going through the biggest stage of maturation and growth since infancy,” she says. “They are learning how to regulate themselves, and testing what does and doesn’t work in terms of behaviour.” The changes in their brains are setting up four areas of innate drive: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity and creative exploration.

While going to work potentially exposes teenagers to more risk of catching the coronavirus, it also offers some incredible opportunities for them to learn some valuable life lessons. Dr Smee says that having a job helps teenagers develop a sense of self-efficacy, and helps them to achieve all these developmental stages as well as giving them the opportunity for skill development. At work, they learn executive functioning skills like goal setting, time management, impulse control, planning and persistence, all of which are crucial to become well functioning adults.

Being a frontline worker gives adolescents an opportunity to develop a greater sense of their own purpose. Having such a purpose is an important protective factor for life, especially during global economic and social adversity.

If a teenager is at home and hasn’t yet explored the world of employment, there are many ways parents can help them to achieve their developmental milestones and to meet them safely.

“One of the most important factors for teen mental health is parental mental health,” says Dr Smee. Parents need to be able to contain their own anxiety and stress in order to be able to help their kids do the same. They must appreciate that adolescents’ emotions are heightened by the stress being felt all around them, while still giving them opportunities for mastery and age appropriate responsibility which they would usually be getting in school and in the broader community.

Dr Smee suggests that getting teenagers to contribute to the family in meaningful ways (i.e. chores or participating in family projects) will help them cope with the uncertainty and isolation. She recommends maintaining structure and routine and incorporating exercise into every day.

Dr Smee urges parents to acknowledge and validate that this is a hard time for adolescents. They’ve lost the structure of normal school routines and their social lives. They are entitled to feel sad and to have anxiety about the world. But also, this is a real opportunity for parents to reconnect and reclaim their relationships with their teens.

So, while many Australians remain mostly at home, the working teenagers soldier on, not only doing something meaningful for themselves but having a truly positive impact on the community around them.