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Teens up all night and sleeping half the day. Endless Netflix binges. In lockdown, kids carve out whole new schedules

Emily Norton of Newton played basketball with her three sons: Jack, 17; Will, 14; and Wyatt, 12. Parents say that dealing with teenagers during the COVID-19 lockdown can be challenging, puzzling, and funny.
Emily Norton of Newton played basketball with her three sons: Jack, 17; Will, 14; and Wyatt, 12. Parents say that dealing with teenagers during the COVID-19 lockdown can be challenging, puzzling, and funny.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

It's 11 a.m. Do you know where your teenager is?

These days, with schools closed and Google Hangouts the only appointments on kids’ schedules, the answer might be: Still asleep.

“I’m not fighting with her about it the way I was in the beginning,” said Reading’s Leah Leahy, mom to a 13-year-old daughter who, like so many other “quaranteens,” has taken to sleeping in late each day. “I mean, she has such a structured life, and now it’s so unstructured. There are no boundaries.”

Julie Hall, the mother of two Charlestown teenagers who are often up half the night, put it more succinctly: “They are vampires.”

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Surely, some families have life during lockdown all figured out. Pandemic or no, they're keeping to a schedule, staying on top of homework, and refusing to yield to the notion that ice cream can be dinner if not eaten directly from the carton.

But six weeks in, most of us with teenagers are still finding our footing. While families with young kids juggle homeschooling and the constant supervision it requires, parents of teens face a different set of issues. The trials of adolescence unspool almost exclusively within the four walls of the family home. As structured school days, sports, and after-school jobs have disappeared, many teens have settled into entirely new schedules. They may be up half the night or more. Showers are often intermittent at best. Screen time is all the time.

“We need to recognize that this is a traumatic event,” said Dr. Shaheen Lakhan, a neurologist and supervising physician for Thriveworks Counseling in Boston. Many of the usual coping mechanisms teenagers rely on are “being obliterated.”

Peter Light, superintendent of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District and the father of a 13- and 15-year-old, recently found himself awake at 2:30 a.m. dwelling on the magnitude of it all. He typed up his thoughts — about the loss of control for families, the shortcomings of online learning, economic stresses — and hit “send to parents” of the 5,600 students in the school district on April 27.

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"It's gotten a lot of feedback," Light said in a phone interview. "Everyone is struggling."

“We have had some really nice moments together on our weekends during the closure,” Light wrote, describing hiking and bread-baking adventures with his teenagers. “But those Instagram moments feel few and far between when faced with our more personal reality, and those moments often give way to moments of frustration, anxiety, and fear.”

Ah yes, the Instagram moments. Cloistered in our homes, social media has more than ever become our primary window into the lives of others. And while we know those curated tableaus don’t capture what the days are really like for other families, it can be easy to measure ourselves by them and feel like we’re failing.

True confessions time: My two teenagers have turned half feral. Bedtime has shifted hours later, which means they don’t roll out of bed until 10 a.m. or later on school days, despite my best efforts. (With changing class schedules, it can be hard to enforce a regular wake-up time.) Cheez-Its have become a food group. Anything academic takes a back seat to repeated viewings of “Grey’s Anatomy” or another round of “Clash of Clans.”

The other day, as I griped yet again about the general lack of hygiene and chores getting done, my seventh-grader rolled her eyes. “Mom,” she said, “it’s coronacation.”

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That term, a favorite on TikTok and other social media platforms frequented by teens, may not be so far off the mark. Stuart Ablon, the director of Think:Kids, a program in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, agreed this strange period may indeed look “a little bit more like summer.”

Ablon pointed out that even as most adults continue to work, the pace of life for many teens has slowed, the pressures decreased. Given the unprecedented circumstances, that’s not surprising nor should it be viewed as wholly negative. Yes, everyone is seeing their schooling interrupted. Some are missing out on important rites of passage like prom and graduation. And even small moments of independence that teens crave can be hard to come by. But as parents, he said, we need to collaborate with them to solve problems and focus on their mental health.

"We're not at our best right now, so trying to be too controlling is not the answer," Ablon said. "They're doing the best they can under this situation. What kinds of silver linings are there?"

Seeing points of friction through a different lens can provide a lift for parents. Take sleep schedules, for example. According to experts, staying up later and sleeping in fits better with teenagers’ biology. Optimally, teens need eight to 10 hours of sleep a night. Their circadian rhythms tend to make them night owls, something early school start times and bus schedules can wreak havoc with during a normal academic year.

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“This is a bit of a natural experiment, actually seeing how much sleep they need when the constraints of school time are eliminated,” said Wendy Troxel, a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND, who studies kids and sleep. While parents can and should set up some parameters for teens (and limiting screen time an hour before bed can minimize sleep disruptions), the altered schedules reflect “a developmentally specific delay," she said.

As for the nonstop Snapchats and FaceTimes? That too may be adaptive. With teens unable to see friends in class or hang out after school, they’re relying on technology to connect with peers and maintain friendships. “There are social reasons to stay up later,” Troxel said.

There are plenty of examples of new behaviors, even hobbies, emerging for teens during the shutdown. Governor Charlie Baker spoke emotionally about his daughter forming a book group with her friends as a way of staying connected. In Brookline, education consultant Beth Jones said her 15-year-old son has become something of a gourmet chef. Interior designer Ana Bonilla, mother of twin 18-year-old daughters and a 16-year-old son, said each of her kids is handling life during the pandemic differently. One daughter works out with her friends on FaceTime, while the other has been concentrating on drawing and painting. Her son has been playing a lot of video games, but he’s also building things and working on projects with his father, Carlos, an engineer.

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“Every now and then, you get the marathon binge-watching or ‘I don’t want to get out of bed,’ ” Bonilla said. “But I think we all have our ups and downs.”

If there’s one thing few parents would complain about, it’s getting to spend more time with their teenagers during the shutdown. Finding family time can often feel impossible during normal school weeks. But now, many families have found themselves sitting down for meals again, playing board games, having open-ended conversations.

“The other night the four of us spent an hour debating how we would survive a zombie apocalypse, so that was a new insight into their thinking I hadn’t been privy to before,” said Emily Norton, a member of the Newton City Council and a mom of three boys ages 12, 14, and 17.

As in any household, it hasn’t been easy. Her sons often sleep till afternoon. To get them off video games, she has had to unplug and hide the router. On Easter, a game of basketball, being played indoors, ended with a trip to Newton-Wellesley Hospital for a minor finger injury.

Norton said she feels fortunate that she has a job right now and that her family is healthy, but it can be a slog. “Overall, like everyone else,” she said, "I’m ready for this to be over.”


Hayley Kaufman can be reached at hayley.kaufman@globe.com.