It’s a trying time to be the parent of a teenager. After months of being cooped up at home away from friends, unable to attend a school, or go out, most kids are chomping at the bit to get back to the lives they had before the pandemic. Getting teens to take safety seriously is a struggle at the best of times, and as the nation moves towards reopening, it’s never been more important to ensure kids are following the rules.
How can parents respect their teens’ needs while still helping them (and everyone else) stay safe? Even if reopening hasn’t started in your area, it’s never too early to start talking about what your family’s approach will be. Discussing what’s coming can help teenagers feel more prepared and increase the odds of intelligent, safe behavior when the time comes.
Hear your teenager out
“The first thing is always to try to understand where your teen is coming from,” says Lindsey Giller, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. To adults, teenage worries (“I’d look stupid in a mask!”) or priorities (“I need to go to the park with my friends on Saturday.”) can seem a little ridiculous. But taking them seriously is key to establishing open lines of communication.
“Don’t dismiss their concerns, even if they seem trivial to you,” says Dr. Giller. “Their friends are their lives, and that’s where their social development is supposed to be right now. Being 16 or 17 and not being able to see your friends or boyfriend or girlfriend for two months is a big deal.”
Instead of handing down mandates (which, let’s be real, teens aren’t likely to follow), having a clear sense of what they want and need will make it easier to come up with rules that they can reasonably follow.
Empathize and validate
“It’s not fair!” is a sentiment we’re all familiar with. Most of us have felt it more than once since this started. But few feel it more exquisitely than teenagers, whose lives have been disrupted right when establishing their own identities and pushing for independence are most important.
Teenagers are likely to feel the unfairness deeply, says Lindsay Macchia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute: It’s unfair that this happened at all, that it’s still happening after months of quarantine, and that, even though they’re not the people most at risk, they can’t just go back to doing things the way they used to.
The more you validate your teen’s feelings, Dr. Macchia says, the more you give them space to be open and expressive. In this case, you can explicitly agree with them. You might say: “You’re right. It is unfair. I feel it too. It’s boring, and it sucks. But it’s what we need to do to keep everyone safe.”
That validation, adds Dr. Giller, “can get them to a place where they’re more accepting of whatever you say next.”
Create a perspective
The quarantine has been a long slog, so long that it can be hard to remember that it’s only been two months. “Those two months can feel like forever, especially in the minds of teens,” says Dr. Giller. “But, you can remind them that it isn’t forever.” It might not be over soon, but it’s not going to last the rest of their lives. Helping your teen remember that the restrictions are temporary can make it easier for them to follow the rules in the meantime.
Stick to the facts
Having seen the pandemic’s impact, we know how important it is to take precautions, and we want our children to take them seriously, too. So it can be upsetting when the response to your urging safety is a deadpan “Okay, Mom” (without looking up from the phone) or the dreaded “Uh-huh.” It’s tempting to keep explaining until they seem to get it or “scare” them into compliance, but that can backfire.
“It’s not so much what you say as to how you say it,” explains Dr. Macchia. Teenagers, she explains, are likely to push back against lecturing or overanxious behavior. Avoid catastrophizing, or focusing on worst-case scenarios, to make an impact. Saying something like, “If you don’t take this seriously, people will die” can make your teen more likely to brush you off.
Instead, focus on being transparent and grounded with them, says Dr. Macchia. Emphasize that this affects everyone, that they have their role to play, and that you have faith that they’re up to the challenge.
Use trusted sources
If teens are skeptical about the risks posed by the coronavirus, don’t hesitate to turn to trusted, fact-based sources like the CDC, the World Health Organization, or NPR. You could even arrange a call with your doctor or your child’s pediatrician if they have a good relationship. “Enlisting others to say, ‘This is real, this isn’t just parental worry,’ can help,” says Dr. Macchia.
Teens may also be reading or hearing information that runs counter to what the scientific community is saying. To head off misinformation, ask your teenager about what they’re reading and help them make sure information comes from a trustworthy source.
Personalize the situation
If the virus hasn’t personally impacted your child, it may seem abstract, unreal, and unlikely to affect them. They also know that fewer young people have gotten seriously ill, making it seem even less relevant to their lives.
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