Last Saturday night (only 36 hours before all restaurants and cafes were closed by the government) my 17-year-old daughter grabbed the car keys, called out “See ya Dad!” and ran down the front steps to head out with friends.
“Hang on a tic! Where are you off to?” My call to her sounded a little more anxious than normal. She stopped, and replied,
“Oh I’m going to hang out with Zali and Ya’el. And a couple of the guys will probably meet us. I think we’re going to grab a bite and go bowling.”
All of my parenting skills almost went over a cliff as I tried to remember to get curious, not furious; to explore, not explode. To understand, not reprimand.
I called her back and we had a little chat. The get-together still went ahead. But they went in different cars. They stayed outdoors. And they ordered their food via drive-through.
Despite government social distancing requirements, the media are still reporting that teens are getting together in parks, throwing parties, heading to the beach, and hanging around shopping centres. To many adults, this seems careless and selfish.
Well, just like some adults, some of our teens are being careless and selfish. Some of them are thinking (mostly) only of themselves, but not because they’re selfish or careless, but because they’re teens. Teens are at that developmental stage where independence and friendship is vitally important. And it’s a stage that’s necessary for their ongoing happiness and wellbeing.
Motivated, self-disciplined, happy teens have a strong sense of control over their lives. Study after study confirm that agency, or a sense of independence, is one of the most important contributing factors to success and happiness. The belief that they can influence their own lives leads to better health and longevity, higher emotional wellbeing, improved academic performance, greater motivation, lower stress, and even a lower use of drugs and alcohol.
Adolescence is also a time where friendship is a primary driver in their lives. Hormonal changes during puberty enhance social dynamics making them highly attuned to social status. Friends are like oxygen to our teens.
So, for teens, having independence and pursuing social connections is more than just escaping the ‘rules’ – it’s an intrinsic part of development.
The COVID-19 Problem
But that doesn’t mean that we can simply sit back and allow our teens do what they like. Social distancing is essential for combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. And our teens need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
So, how do we help them understand the seriousness of social distancing and social isolation requirements?
Give them the ‘sex talk’
Giving them the ‘sex talk’ and tying it into virus transmission is a fantastic way to get your teen to relate. They’ve likely already been taught that when they have sex with a partner, it is like having sex with every other person that partner has previously had sex with. So, before engaging in intimacy, they have to know and trust that partner implicitly, or they put themselves at risk for STDs/STIs, some of which can have serious health consequences.
This analogy holds true for the spreading of COVID-19. When your teen comes into close contact with a friend, it’s not just the friend they’re interacting with, but every other person that friend has also had close contact with. So, when they hop into the car to visit their best friend, they’re also ‘visiting’ the best friend’s family, school mates, the people he’s interacted with in shops, at work, and everywhere else he’s been. Keeping your ‘intimate’ contact low is the best way to combat the spread of this disease.
Use their independence for good
Force creates resistance. When we try to force our children to do something, we’ll encounter push back, even from the most obliging teens. Instead, use your teen’s desire for independence as a weapon for good.
Rather than sitting down and saying, ‘Here are the rules that you must follow’, show them videos coming out of Italy and the US. Read them the government’s press releases about worldwide responses to the pandemic and review data and graphs of infection rates. Tell them what’s happening and the rules the government’s put in place. Then ask them, ‘What do you think the best approach for us is at this stage?’
Arm your teen with information and then brainstorm with them. Let them make suggestions that respond to real information. Involve them and they’ll rise to the occasion.
Help them find other ways to interact with their friends
Just because our teens are isolated, doesn’t mean it must feel that way. Friendship is an important part of teens’ lives, and supporting those friendships is an important role of parents.
Suggest a ‘movie night’ where your teen can watch the same movie as a few friends while engaging on social media. Or get them involved in a friendly competition that each teen can do from home (most marshmallows in the mouth – it will make a great TikTok!). And now might be the time to relax screen time rules just that little bit.
Acknowledge this is hard
Social isolation is hard, and it’s going to continue being hard. Acknowledge that. Let them express their anger and frustration. Tell them that that you get it. And help them rise to the occasion so they can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Remind them that this won’t last forever, even if it feels like it sometimes. Remind yourself, too. Like all things, this will pass, and in a couple of years we can talk about how hard it was, and how we got through. We can do this, together.