Coach your teen to social distance

Teens and social distancing

We’re all struggling with social distancing, but teens are having an especially tough time and that’s to be expected. They’re in the developmental stage of identity formation when it is critical for them to have the opportunity to discover who they are, set their own boundaries, and establish their own values and beliefs, apart from those of their parents. 

Teens can feel invincible and since they may have heard reports that COVID-19 might not affect them, they think parents and government officials are being overly cautious. Because they do not have command of the full set of executive functions, they need guidance to plan for the future and consider the effects of their actions. (Health care providers continue to gather new information about COVID-19. Teens can contract the virus and pass it on. Find up-to-date information on the CDC website.)

Evidence is clear that social distancing is vital to flattening the curve and slowing down the spread of the virus. So, how can parents encourage their teens to stay at home? Teens are hard-wired to push back against rules, so laying down the law probably isn’t going to work.  University of Texas psychology professor, Dr. David Yeagar, advises that how we communicate with teens makes a difference. They want a certain level of status and respect from both peers and authority figures. Failing socially is a teen’s greatest fear so they may overreact when they feel like their social life is “over.”

Teens value autonomy, the opportunity to make their own decisions. Tell them they can’t do something, they hear, “you’re not an adult who can make choices for yourself.” Instead, support the teen towards making the decision themselves. That’s a conversation about principles vs. rules. Rules externally restrain a kid through authority and discipline, but principles have the potential to internally inspire a kid to do the right thing. 

Ask them: 

  • How does your desire to be with your friends tie back to your values?
  • Why do you want to go see your friends? Be specific. What are you looking to get out of this visit?
  • What are all of the potential consequences of you making this choice, and not social distancing? Really walk through them all.
  • Are there other ways you can get to the “why” without risking the health and safety of others? What might they be?
  • How would you feel if another person made a similar decision and it resulted in you or someone you love getting sick or dying?
  • How would you feel if your decision resulted in someone else getting sick or dying?
  • Is there a different decision you can make that is more aligned with your values, and allows you to get what you want out of visiting your friends?

It’ll be a long, hard conversation, but it is also the time to unpack the principle behind social distancing so that teens can own their decision to self isolate. 

  • Imply they have the wisdom and competence to make this decision themselves.
  • Create opportunities for them to matter by listening and believing in them.
  • Allow teens to belong. This may mean relaxing some of your screen time rules since this is the only opportunity for social interactions. 

Ultimately since physical danger is involved, you will make stay-at-home a rule, but by engaging your teen in the decision making-process, they feel respected and responsible. It’s important learning and growth for our future adults.


Teens and social distancing