What to Do If You & Your Teen Don't Agree on Social Distancing

Teenagers are social creatures — they’re hard-wired to learn from and grow with each other — and we all know that social-distancing has been pretty hard on them. So as stay-at-home orders and guidelines ease up all over the world, they are rejoicing most of all. But if you’re the parent or guardian of a teen, chances are you’re going to have to rein in their natural instinct to reconnect with their friends like a pile of puppies.

The new rules of behavior in a pandemic are difficult for everyone to navigate and enforce. That’s why we called in child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Barbara Greenberg to help figure out how to get you and your kids on the same page when it comes to social distancing.

“They’re really getting bored and they’re missing each other,” Greenberg told SheKnows of the teens she works with in Connecticut. “They’re telling me that they’re running out of things to talk about because they’re not doing a whole lot together. … On Zoom they can see each other, but you can’t really read each other’s nonverbal cues.”

Here’s her advice for letting them get some of that in-person socializing they need, without putting themselves, you, or the community in danger of contracting COVID-19.

1. Listen first; then discuss.

“Don’t be condescending, and give them space to talk,” Greenberg said.

When teens feel heard, then they’re less likely to be on the defensive. Ask your teen questions about what kind of socializing they want to do and why. Find out if they are feeling peer pressure to disregard rules about mask-wearing or intimate contact.

“Then, only after you’ve listened to them carefully to find out what they know and what they don’t know, try to reason with them and educate them,” she said.

You can do that by reading articles together about the rate of coronavirus cases in your area, the latest science we know of how it spreads, and why certain guidelines exist to stop it.

2. Recruit them to “team family.”

Teens are likely to feel invincible in general, and the stats showing that young people have less-severe reactions to the virus only enforce that notion. But contrary to their selfish reputation, they do also care about their family. Talk to them about ways they can help protect you, other adults in the family, and anyone else with whom you might have to be in contact.

“I think you have to try as much as possible to make children feel like they’re part of the decision-making process,” Greenberg said. “Because if they’re part of that process and they feel like they have skin in the game, they’re much more likely to listen to the decision.”

3. Encourage masks.

If they’re going to be seeing friends and not maintaining much distance from them, masks are the best way they’ll be able to protect each other. The science is increasingly backing up the use of masks to reduce infection rates, just as many brands are coming out with great-looking, reusable masks.

Don’t just expect your words to work on this matter. You’ll need to model that behavior for them and wear your mask too.

4. Help them come up with safe activities.

If you can host an outdoor, socially distant gathering with a few of your kids’ friends, that’s a great start. More independent teens can do something similar in parks or other outdoor spaces. Greenberg often sees the local teens eating lunch “together” — each in their own car, in the high school parking lot.

As they go out to do these things, encourage them to talk to their friends about what precautions they’re taking and why. The more they talk about these things with each other, the more normal and natural it will seem.

5. Connect with their friends’ families.

If you want their reconnection with others to happen in a slower, more controlled fashion because someone in your family is in a high-risk category, you can form a pod with one or two of your child’s friends’ families. That would mean establishing a set of mutually agreed-upon rules for how safe all of you need to be in order to interact with each other, including staying socially distant from others outside the pod.

That kind of intimacy isn’t everyone’s style, but it’s still be a good idea to talk to their friends’ parents and try to get on the same page about what the kids should be doing together outside of the house. If you find out one family’s attitude about coronavirus is far too casual for your taste, you may have to make a few extra rules about socializing with them. Think of it as the same way you’d want to know about whether other parents have guns in the house, or if they’re buying kegs for their kids’ parties.

6. Let them work, if they can.

Summer jobs have long been an excellent way for teenagers to socialize while also learning how to be responsible adults. If the economy in your area allows for it, and an employer is serious about keeping employees safe, you might want to consider letting your kid get to work. The need or desire for work and money will motivate them to comply with their workplace rules.

“The whole thing about jobs is that they feel more responsible because they’re being given responsibility,” Greenberg said.

7. Establish and maintain mutual trust.

Once you make these guidelines together, you will probably be dying to know whether your teen is actually complying with them. After all, even as adults we find ourselves slowly standing closer and closer to our friends, forgetting to maintain our bubbles of caution, and pulling the masks from our faces to get an extra breath of fresh air.

“It’s probably not a good idea to drive past their friend’s houses to see what they’re actually doing,” Greenberg said. “When they get back home, ask them if they were able to follow the plans that you set up together. If they did, what made it easy? What made it hard? Because the peer pressure is hard for the kids, too, so give them a place to talk about it.”

8. Give them suitable consequences.

Even without doing anything wrong, these kids have been basically grounded for months. That doesn’t mean that failing to comply with your rules should mean nothing.

“The consequence has to fit the crime, so if they’re not leaving the house safely, then the next day, they stay home,” Greenberg said. “What you don’t want to do is encourage lying. That’s why you really want to have an honest discussion with them.”

Whatever happens, just remember that this is completely alien territory for all of us, so no one is going to be perfect at making or complying with these rules. When you and your kids have a shared goal of staying safe, healthy, and happy, we think you’ll be able to get through this together.

Photo: Getty Images

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