How to Encourage Your Teen to Follow COVID-19 Guidelines

Why it’s so hard for them, and how you can help them get back to school safely.

Posted Sep 01, 2020

Gemma Chua-Tran/Unsplash
Source: Gemma Chua-Tran/Unsplash

The novel coronavirus is still with us, and we’re starting a new academic year. Now you might be faced with the possibility of your teenager going back to school, and into an environment that is loaded with challenges of social distancing, hand hygiene, mask-wearing, and more.

Why It’s Hard for Teens to Follow the COVID-19 Rules

  1. Their brains are still developing. Their prefrontal cortex, which allows for self-regulation and wise decision-making in the moment, won’t be fully developed until their mid-20s. No matter how mature they might appear sometimes, their judgment is not yet dependable.
  2. Their friends really matter to them. Because social interactions and popularity are enormously important through the teen years, social considerations can override their judgement.
  3. They pay more attention to rewards than risks. Teens evaluate risks and rewards differently than adults. The rewards have a bigger pull on their imagination, and they don’t really think the risks apply to them. They can’t fully grasp the idea of mortality, especially their own.
  4. Social pressures can override their judgement. It’s harder for teens to do the right thing when they’re with others. The bigger the group, the harder it is for them to do what they might otherwise know to be the right thing.

How You Can Help Your Teen Get Through Safely to the Other Side of COVID-19

  1. Ask, listen, and validate. Try to get a sense of your teen’s thoughts and feelings around the virus, including their worries about friends and family members, their role in potential transmission, and their own vulnerability. Acknowledge that you know how hard all the restrictions and cancellations are for them. Many teens believe they are being robbed of all that matters and losing out on what should have been one of the best years of their lives. Let them know it’s totally normal and OK to be worried, angry, disappointed, and frustrated.
  2. Talk about ways they can stay socially connected and safe. They do not have to choose between these apparently conflicting priorities. Help them figure out how they can do both.
  3. Talk about the science. Many teens don’t distinguish between social media posts and science. If your teenager is feeling invulnerable, and disdaining health measures, show them one or more reputable articles on teen COVID cases; in the last few weeks, more and more cases are being reported, including hospitalizations and deaths. Don’t overdo the fear factor or they’ll discount your opinions altogether, but if your teen is resisting your safety message, show them graphic pictures of what happens with this disease. One of the most effective teen anti-smoking campaigns showed smoking-related damage to young people’s lungs and skin.
  4. Engage them in the problem-solving process. Ask, “What ideas do you have for staying safe, so you don’t bring it home, and you don’t get sick yourself?” and “How can we help you stay safe?” The more they feel the plans are theirs, the more likely they are to follow them.
  5. Appeal to their idealism and altruism. Teens can sometimes be completely selfish, but most of them also want to make a difference, and contribute to the social good. Your teenager may know people who need to be protected; talk to them about how they’re helping to do that—and to reduce the time we are all suffering illness and restrictions—by following the COVID rules.
  6. Draw the links to peer pressure and bullying. Talk about ways your teen might experience others putting pressure on them to take off the mask, attend a party, etc. By naming that kind of behavior as bullying, your child may feel better empowered to resist it.
  7. Remind them it won't last forever. All they have to do is get through until the virus is gone from your community. We're getting close now to having an effective vaccine, and that will help expedite that, too. 
  8. Repeat. Dealing with all this is a steep learning curve and they can’t get it right all at once. Have the COVID conversation as often as you need to keep your teenager and your family safe.
  9. Be calm. Everyone is feeling stressed right now, very much including your teenager. Without minimizing the risks and need for precautions, do what you can to keep yourself calm and to support their coping resources.
  10. Model the behavior you want to see. As with everything else, if you’re not wearing a mask, etc., your child probably won’t either.

This is an impossibly challenging time for many families, and teens are suffering the pandemic-necessitated restrictions and cancellations at least as much as others. You can help your teenager get through it strong, healthy, and happy.

References

Social, Emotional, and Mental Well-being of Adolescents During COVID-19,” by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Coronavirus Rates Are Rising Fast Among Children,” by Lauren Leatherby and Lisa Waananen Jones