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Home » Your Health » Don’t stand so close to me

Don't stand so close to me

My so-called life in the time of COVID-19

By Dr. Michelle Warren
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Saturday, March 21, 2020

I don't know about you, but when I was younger, an unplanned school closure was an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It meant a break in routine, it was novel, it was fun!

For some, maybe most, of our children today, they are experiencing this "novel" event of a school closure for the first time on a dramatically different scale from what you or I might have seen in the past with a snow-day or a result of flooding.

But for the next three weeks, rather than hanging out with whomever they want, socializing as we may have done as teens, our children will be at home with us, with their siblings and, if they're lucky, the family pets.

For all children who have already entered school, from Kindergarten and up, this sudden interruption of their social network will resonate with them. Developmental studies have shown that as children grow the importance they place on their social network increases. Your six-year-old, for example, may experience mild disappointment that an anticipated activity is canceled. Your 10-year-old may feel a stronger reaction and may express concern about grandma and grandpa and missing contact with them or with teachers and friends at school. But for your teenager, the prospect of a day without their peers, let alone three weeks, may be downright apocalyptic.

While that may seem an exaggeration, I remember how anxiety-provoking it was to contemplate grounding as a punishment, and that restricted social activity. I know I worried more about that than I did other potential consequences.

Our teenaged years are formative for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the natural separation from parents and family as the primary social structure. Teenagers, appropriately, begin to determine their independence and identity away from the family unit from about age 12 and up as they begin to prepare for adulthood. From age 14 or 15 on, they often have their own activities and are often responsible for elements of their own schedule, they see friends outside the home without parents around and they are beginning to think about their lives after high school, when they will, technically, be adults.

That's a big transition.

Studies of teenaged development and behavior indicate that during adolescence, your teenager will value their connections with their peers more than they ever have before. Their teenaged "tribe" will become their essential support network which will see them through to adulthood (Damour, 2016). Having a strong, supportive peer group is essential to teenagers and offers feelings of value, of love and it contributes to their sense of purpose to be a member of this group. To interrupt that important connection during such formative years could have a lasting impact on our teenagers. It's no wonder they view the situation to be apocalyptic!

So what can we, as parents and caregivers, do to support our teenaged shut-ins during the COVID-19 school closures? How do we reinforce important public health messaging with them while acknowledging their genuine need for social contact?

While there is no replacement for honest-to-goodness face-to-face connection, these are exceptional circumstances which call for extraordinary measures. We may even consider relaxed restrictions on screen time.

I'm not saying it's carte blanche for SnapChat and TikTok. First make sure to talk with your teen about what they miss most about being in the presence of their friends. Is it the inside jokes? Hearing a friend's distinctive laugh? Watching another friend tell a story with outrageous actions? All of these things can be translated through social media, video-chats, Face Time, and, aside from the actions, even a plain old fashioned phone call.

For those teens that have lost the art of the dwindling phone call stretching to all hours of the night, suggesting a loose structure to them and their friends for socializing using electronic media is also an option. They can start a book club and check in chapter by chapter, or a movie club and run a Facebook chat during the film or check in at the end.

If they're feeling antsy they can take walks together using Face Time, comparing their surroundings (just check your data plan first!) or peruse the plethora of fitness or yoga videos available online to do together. They can even to hands-on challenges, fixing household items from instructional videos and comparing results, trying baking, science or crafting projects and sharing their mishaps and successes. Really, the possibilities are endless.

The point is, being apart does not need to mean being alone. Not only are there options available to them to maintain those important social connections with their peer group, but they have you, the caregiver reading this article, who will support those connections and continue to be there for them through this situation and that is the best thing you can do.

Dr. Michelle Warren is a child psychologist with the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre, and the Department of Clinical Health Psychology, University of Manitoba. This column was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Saturday, March 21, 2020.

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