Helping Your Teen Through COVID-19 Physical Distancing Challenges
At the moment, you and your teen(s) are living with uncertainty. School has ended early, jobs are being lost or changed in record numbers, and your family can no longer access many of your usual supports. It’s hard enough for parents and caregivers to balance limit setting while trying to promote some independence in their teen. So how do you approach this new challenge of physical distancing with your teen without risking your relationship?
Initially teenagers are not going to understand what is going on. Chances are very good that they will challenge and resist the request to stay home and isolate. This is normal adolescent behaviour and shouldn’t be viewed as outright defiance. Teens will often test limits set by their parents and caregivers. In doing so they enable a response that helps them to engage their own critical thinking processes to formulate a response based not only on how they feel, but what they gauge their parent to be feeling in that moment. When anger and fear are part of the conversation, these emotions can easily hi-jack a teen’s ability to problem solve reasonably and arguments often ensue. As you attempt to influence your teen to follow the current directives consider the following:
- Present your teen with simple, brief “bytes” of information regarding the importance of physical distancing and self-isolation. Explain who they are protecting, (older family members, or those with underlying health concerns) and remind them they are also protecting themselves. Try to keep a more neutral tone with your delivery.
- Teens rarely experience threats to safety in the same way that their parents do. So practice patience as you help your teen grasp the severity of the situation. It may take a few attempts at discussing risks and benefits with them before you notice they are registering the importance of the information in the way that you do.
- Look for indications in your teen’s actions and language that shows they’re starting to understand. Are they spending more time at home now than they did before? Are they asking more questions? Do you notice them coming to you now with information that they’ve seen or heard from their own web searches or friends? All of these are signs that your teen is coming around and starting to engage with the bigger picture. Encourage them, and invite them to keep asking questions, as you influence them by sharing information from credible sources.
Show them you care
Quarantines and physical distance are far from the norm for teens. Social interaction is vital to adolescent development. Two major agents of socialization have been ripped from your child: school life, and peers. Key aspects of their life such as school clubs, sports, dance and more have also been taken from them. These are genuine losses that are felt intensely by a still-growing mind that lacks an adult’s perspective and experience. In addition to outlining the reasons for physical distancing with your teen, consider the following steps:
- Ask them to tell you what physical distance really means to them. Give them a chance to vent their own frustrations about this new and strange expectation.
- Invite them to practice some critical thinking. Ask about how they see themselves meeting this new rule, and what they can still do to connect with peers.
- Stay curious about how the new health directives are being experienced by your teen. How is this impacting their life? What are they feeling? What are they worried about? Who are they concerned about most now? As the parent, you will gain considerable emotional ground with your kid if you take time to validate and support their experience as they tell it.
- Find opportunities to them you understand it’s hard that they can’t hang out with their friends, and that you don’t like to see them suffer that loss.
- Avoid the temptation to move to quickly into lecturing, or “fixing” the problem with platitudes. Don’t tell them “it’s only for a short time” or “it’s not a big deal, you’ll have your friends back soon.” Chances are your teen doesn’t share your adult view, and they may resent being told this.
Your teen will feel closer to you, and be more included to talk to you about their experience if you can reflect back their true feelings about this strange new post-COVID world we now inhabit.
How do you help your teen when you don’t have all the answers?
The most important thing your teenager needs from you now is support and understanding. Teens also respond positively to candor and honesty. Be an honest informant and share only what is known, from credible medical sources. Also, don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have the answer. You cannot tell them exactly what the future holds, and you cannot fix everything, but you can act to keep your teen close, and help them make the adjustment to this new environment.
Help create a new normal. Ask your teen about their own ideas for setting a new routine for the house, and consider assigning responsibilities that are age appropriate. Your teen will likely find comfort in structure and may appreciate being recruited to problem solve with the family. Consider the following actions:
- Ask your teen how they would like to help: Could they can do the grocery shopping, or take on other responsibilities?
- Remind your teen that physical distancing doesn’t mean they can’t connect with their peers. Encourage Facetime, and work with your child to ensure they have space to connect with peers. (Note: Now would also be a good time to review boundaries about personal disclosure on social media with your teen!)
- As strongly as you may feel about the risks of screen addiction, now is not the time to enter into power struggles over video gaming. Consider that your teen’s alternatives to screen time are more limited now. For this generation of kids, screen time is social and recreational time.
- Plan things to look forward to such as fun themed family dinners, family movie nights, and give them space when they ask for it. Encourage your teen to take up new hobbies; have art supplies in the house, books, journals, yoga mats, and more. Physical activity and movement should be happening daily whether it is something small like walking the family dog, or doing a workout or game together in the living room.
- As you introduce new routines such as family meal times in the home, make sure they know about it but don’t hold too strongly to an expectation that they will always participate. Make leftovers available or have alternatives for them to make their own meals.
Delaney Nicola is a practicum student with Hollyburn Family Services. She contributes articles to support the work of family counsellors and family support workers at Hollyburn Family Services.