I can't get my teen to wear a jersey, now its a mask?!
Parenting a teenager is notoriously complicated – there’s a lot of physical, emotional and social development that is happening in a relatively short space. If I think about myself 5-7 years ago, you’d see a very similar version of me, and yet the change from a 12 year old to a 19 year is dramatic! Now when you throw a global pandemic into the mix, it’s even more challenging to navigate for all.
In a recent post by my colleague, Dr Lauren Lee, she spoke about the role and responsibilities of adolescents in the spread of COVID 19. She explained how the adolescent brain works in order to give context to their behaviours. Their brains are physically predisposed to impulsivity and immediate gratification as well as wired to succumb to social pressures. Furthermore, their brains are also developmentally more egocentric than adults- this doesn’t mean they are selfish or uncaring, but rather that it is difficult for them to see things from a perspective that is different from their own. Then we also need to consider that one of the main goals of adolescence is to ‘separate’ from their parents and find acceptance in a new ‘tribe’ (friends). ‘When we’re teens our friendships define and shape us, they give us a sense of belonging; they make us feel significant and accepted’ (Caswell, 2020). Now we are asking them to make big changes to their behaviour, not only for themselves but for others, much of which go against their natural development and may be far harder for teens than it is for the rest of us.
As Dr Lee asks, how do we find the ‘sweet spot’ of balancing their social needs with being socially safe? With COVID 19 here for a while, it’s a challenge that parents of teenagers must try navigate. I wish I could give you definite steps, but these are some suggestions:
1. Talk with them about the reasons, risks and consequences in real terms.
Teenagers are not going to accept a vague explanation or do something just because we told them to. They need a reason that makes sense, especially if we expect them to give up so many things that matter to them. Otherwise they are just going to do the opposite of what they are told. I encourage parents to rather have open, honest and rational conversations about the facts we do know in terms of masks, hand washings and physical distancing. Parents need to explain that it is also about the risks to others, highlighting vulnerable people around them, to make it more real. Parents can acknowledge that while we are continuing to learn about COVID 19, there is strong science supporting the efficiency of these methods in keeping safe.
2. Be prepared to make decisions that s/he do not like.
Your teen may find the restrictions hard or unfair, they may say that their friends are allowed to do things differently. It is important that, as the parents, you make decisions you feel are in the best interest of your family, directly and indirectly, and that may differ from family to family. Perhaps socialising needs to occur under specific restrictions or there needs to be more parental monitoring when socialising, as it may be too easy to forget the new norms (not that your child wants to be reckless, but rather gets caught up in the moment). Dr Lee suggested keeping socialising to outdoors, limiting arrangements to one or two and keeping at distance. You can encourage your teen to help problem solve with you -ask for their input and suggestions for how they think they can navigate this. You may have to get very creative here. But ultimately, the decision falls to the parents.
3. Check your own behaviour.
I know that even parents cannot stick to every ‘recommendation and rule’ unless we stay locked in our homes and never venture out. We must take calculated risk in order to survive physically, emotionally and financially. But do not expect your teen to be vigilant and responsible when you are not! Teenagers can sniff out parents’ BS like hound dogs and will push against it even more. You may need to give your teen more attention. I encourage parents to try offer some alternatives to fill that void from the reduction in socialising, but this does require more effort from parents. Maybe you can offer to watch one of their shows together, play boardgames, learn their latest Xbox game or get involved with a TikTok challenge. Again, time for creative thinking.
The ability to see the bigger picture is something that only develops as we get older. Adolescents need us to reflect the duality of this experience for them. They need parents to be able to acknowledge how hard this is for them, the very real losses they are feeling, how unfair it feels and that not seeing friends/wearing a mask/missing a sports match/not having a sleepover etc IS a big deal! And at the same time they need parents to highlight to them (kindly, not critically) that this is a moment in time that will eventually pass, that there is a lot they can be grateful for, and that while none of us imagined things to turn out this way, we learn to adjust to things beyond our control.
Talya Ressel is a social worker and family therapist in Cape Town, SA. She works with people to assist in managing their anxiety and to develop tools to cope with those experiences. While her clients range in ages, she has a particular interest in working with young people and their families.