COVID-19 adds new dimension to discussions between parents and teens
By Denyse Blanco, Kari Webster and Nadia MacKinnon
Published Monday, June 8, 2020
Parenting through a teen’s high school years has never been for the faint of heart, and you can be forgiven for thinking that it couldn’t possibly get any harder. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has added new dimensions to the challenge, especially as your teen transitions into a summer holiday mindset.
While some public health restrictions are being lifted or relaxed as part of the province’s “Phase Two” pandemic response announced last week, it’s important to remind your teens that the risks to their health – and the health of those they encounter – have not passed. We have not yet “returned to normal.”
The good news is that getting through to your teen is really a case of making sure you have open lines of communication.
Developmentally speaking, the high school years are where your teen is looking to assert a certain level of independence – to draw their own conclusions and to make their own decisions. This is an important, and necessary, phase of development to prepare them for adulthood. Unfortunately, it also means they are less likely to respond well to even the most well-intentioned parental directives. At the same time, a teen doesn’t yet possess all of the critical thinking skills they’ll have as adults. So what’s a parent to do?
The simple answer, though it’s often easier in principle than it is in practice, is to talk it out.
A good place to start the conversation is to ask your teen which relationships or social opportunities they miss the most. What do they expect in terms of rebuilding connections with others? What goals does your teen have as public health restrictions are gradually lifted? You might just be surprised to find out how modest they are.
Let’s face it: we’ve done a good job getting public health information about COVID-19 out to Canadians of all ages. Chances are very good that your teen has been paying attention. Find out what they know, and how they plan to conduct themselves now that some restrictions are being lifted. Ask about their sources of information, and if those are lacking in credibility, direct them elsewhere.
Be sure your teen is planning ahead. It may be a new step, but it is an important one. Confirm ahead of time how your teen plans to navigate potential scenarios and limit fun but impulsive decisions. Ask them to consider the health of others, especially in cases where you or their friends have a family member who is elderly, or has a chronic health condition or weakened immune system. It may require them to choose between seeing grandparents who are more at risk or seeing more of their friends. If your family decides to open your teen’s social circle, make sure to encourage, or to limit to, activities out-of-doors wherever possible and encourage them to maintain social distancing.
Encourage your teen to exert their independence as they hold conversations with their peers, or the parents of their friends, when planning social gatherings. While your teen may be clear on your expectations of them, cuing them to explore the expectations and limits faced by friends is another important deciding factor as they expand their social circles.
When speaking with your teen, it’s vital to practice active listening. Validate their feelings. Acknowledge their perspective and emotions. Respect their opinions and goals. Avoid making assumptions. This does not mean giving in or agreeing with their position, but it does mean you need to be able to articulate what their position is. Otherwise, you run the risk of being perceived as dismissive or judgmental, even when that is not your intention.
Remember, too, to set a good example. Teens may not yet be full-fledged adults, but they can, and will, call you out if you expect them to “do as I say and not as I do”. They will tune you out if you’re telling them to avoid social interactions while you are gleefully throwing caution to the wind in yours.
A final element of negotiation for teens is the romantic relationship – which is challenging at the best of times, with or without COVID-19! Discussing your teen’s love life may not be something you’re looking forward to, but since COVID-19 adds another element of risk to dating life, it needs to be added to the list of your “safe-dating” conversation. Ask your teen how they plan to navigate romantic relationships while abiding by public health directives and seek out public health information together.
Perhaps most importantly, take it easy on yourself! We assure you that the definitive guide to parenting in a pandemic has yet to be written, and that there is no one “right” way to approach it. Mistakes will be made. So, just as you might advise your teen in any number of situations; do your best. Keep listening, keep talking, and keep looking for ways to make things work.
Your teen will appreciate it.
To learn more about the new reality of living with the risk of COVID-19 please visit: gov.mb.ca/covid19/prepareandprevent/index.html
Denyse Blanco, Kari Webster and Nadia MacKinnon are Occupational Therapists with Child and Adolescent Mental Health at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg. Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg is a Shared Health Facility. This column was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Monday, June 8, 2020.