Most parents of teens I know spent the weekend after the announcement of coronavirus-related school closures arguing with their children about why they couldn’t hang out with friends. Somehow, "social distancing" didn’t compute in their teenage brains, and they were absolutely convinced their friends were hanging out (and in some cases, they were right.)
While the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place decree may have tamped down that argument some, there are plenty more to take its place. Parents who are trying to make the best of a bad situation with family movie nights and doubling down on family time may instead be facing slammed doors with angry, stressed teens behind them.
Sociologist Christine Carter, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, is not surprised. The author of the recently released The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction is herself now stuck at home in Marin trying to navigate this unprecedented situation with her four teenagers – two high schoolers and two college students who were forced to return home.
Add to that the fact that in her blended family, the combined kids have a total of three different homes in which they live, with different parents and different rules. "We think of the American nuclear family where we can shelter everyone in the same place," Carter says. "It’s not as cut and dried as two parents and two kids sheltering in place. Lots of kids have multiple households. This is really confusing for them, and it’s really hard for them to know what to do."
We asked Carter for her advice on how to deal with teens during this coronavirus crisis.
Why is social distancing and sheltering in place so hard for teens?
During adolescence, they become much more attuned to social status, and a feeling of belonging with peers becomes much more salient. That’s biological. Basically, we’re saying, "You’ll be in isolation." It’s like solitary confinement. Separation from peers is much more stressful during adolescence than it is for me. I’ll miss my friends, but I don’t feel panicky. It’s normal if kids feel a little panicky.
Also, during adolescence, it’s their developmental job to individuate from us. They’re trying to grow their autonomy and sense of freedom. Being trapped at home with their parents makes them feel infantilized. It goes against their core developmental path. This creates a very big motivational conflict.
So, what can parents do?
I’ve come up with three things for myself.
The first thing is to acknowledge the challenging emotions they’re feeling right now. It’s an act of empathy. You’re establishing a relationship that is not one of control. We have to meet them where they are – and they’re all in different places. There’s grief, there’s sadness, there’s fear. They may or may not be afraid of coronavirus itself, but they are afraid of losing touch with friends.
Two, work with their existing motivation. Teens’ existing motivations are primarily social in nature. I have two main motivations. One is, of course, the greater good and helping flatten the curve. The other is that I am close to my parents and used to seeing them twice a week. We are not going to be able to be with them unless we are in isolation for some period of time. I started off by sharing those motivations with my kids. It worked really well for one but another doesn’t have those motivations no matter what I say. … This child’s motivation is to be back with their friends, and we said you can only see people who have been in isolation for two to three weeks. This is the best I can do right now. I am really trying to work with their existing motivation, which is to get out of isolation.
Three, support their three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness. If any of these is thwarted, their motivation to defy the game plan will shoot up.
For autonomy, make sure they have an amount of freedom. Don’t use controlling language – ask them what their plan is. (This is good for all the time. It works with my husband, too.) This is the key to getting along with teenagers: asking them questions, giving them choices. … Once you remove their choice and introduce this element of force, you’re setting yourself up for conflict and rebellion.
For competence, make sure we’re not treating them like little kids. They wake themselves up. It also means making sure they have real responsibilities, like keeping common areas clean, helping with the dishes, helping with the cooking.
And for relatedness, we’re all doing this together. We’re trying to set our house up like camp. Cooking, cleaning – we’re making it fun. We’ve got all the puzzles and games out. Tonight, we’re going to watch a live concert online. We’re going to have a checkers tournament.
Everyone is posting photos on social media of family cooking and game nights. My kids want to Facetime in their rooms and play Fortnite. Is that OK?
I think it’s important to have balance and give them a choice. Start small, like "we’re all going to have lunch or dinner together." It doesn’t need to be family game night. Make it easy to enter into. "We’re not saying you can’t play Fortnite, but can you give me 10 minutes of your time to play a game of checkers?" and see where it goes from there. For one of our kids, I said, "What about making a playlist for when we’re making dinner that would be appropriate for all of us?" It’s a way of contributing and making it more fun.
Remember that social media and video games are easy to enter into. We need to make family activities easy to enter into.
I took to heart the advice I’d read about kids needing a schedule and made what I thought was a pretty flexible one. My kids called me Kim Jong Un. It’s on the fridge, but no one is following it.
Teenagers need to make their own schedule. The schools are kind of helping with it (but it varies). You can’t mandate that they do it. Imposing that kind of structure feels like force. It just won’t work. They won’t follow it. But they need structure. They need it, need it, need it.
It’s evolving in our household. The oldest two know themselves well enough to know they need it and are volunteering things like "I’m going to run every morning." The youngest I gave a schedule worksheet (to fill in). I can see she’s playing around with it.
There’s also some novelty we have to let wear off, like sleeping in every day.
You have to work with their existing motivations and be patient.
What about high school juniors and seniors who are missing SATs, AP classes, college visits, proms and more. They’re really stressed and upset. What can parents do?
The first thing is to acknowledge their feelings, but not let them go too far. As we think about the future, it gets really, really scary. As the losses are incurred, we need to turn our attention to how those circumstances make them feel. "This is happening and it’s not ideal and it’s not what we planned for." All we can do is look to their emotions.
We have a saying in our family: "Let’s not be bad at the future" – let’s not create a narrative about the worst-case scenario in the future and react to that worst-case scenario as if it’s happening now.
It helps no one. We don’t know what the future holds.