How to Talk to Teens & Young Adults About Social Distancing
The key is understanding their unique perspective.
Posted Mar 22, 2020
Today, I heard of a concerning trend: College kids posting Instagram photos of themselves on Spring Break—defying rules related to social isolation and mocking older generations for being too careful. Bikini-clad with drinks in hand, these Gen Y and Gen Zers seemed to be saying, “Stay inside, grandpa, but we’re healthy and ready to party.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full effect and sanctions mounting in both the U.S. and globally, two camps seem to be emerging: (1) those who are growing worried and cautious about the chance of contacting or spreading the virus and thus adhering to social distancing, and (2) those who feel the concerns and sanctions are overblown and are still choosing to gather in groups, travel, and live life as if COVID-19 were not an impending threat.
Teens and young adults seem especially likely to be in the latter camp. And from my perspective as a developmental psychologist, this makes sense for a number of reasons.
First, from a basic biological perspective, teens and young adults still do not have command of the full set of executive functions, especially those related to planning and considering future consequences, that older adults have. The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until the mid- to late-20s, which leaves many teens and young adults prone to impulsivity and unlikely to consider consequences that an older adult would easily contemplate.
Second, from a socioemotional standpoint, many teens and young adults are in the developmental stage of identity formation (Erik Erikson). It is critical for them to have the opportunity discover who they are, set their own boundaries, and establish their own values and beliefs, apart from those of their parents. They are often separating from their families, both geographically and socially, because they are developing their own identities. During this time, they may test rules and boundaries imposed on them by parents and other authority figures not because they want to be contrary, but because they are trying to answer the fundamental questions of “Who am I?” and “What can I be?”
Third, many teens and young adults may feel like they are unique and invincible—this is known as the personal fable. They may believe that no one has ever gone through anything like they are going through, and an illusion of invulnerability may make them believe that the COVID-19 virus could never affect them. Again, this is a common psychological phenomenon, but it may make them appear self-centered and increase the likelihood of impulsive behavior.
So what can you do when your teen or young adult wants to defy government- or parent-mandated sanctions regarding COVID and social isolation?
Most importantly, it’s necessary to have sympathy. In fact, nothing like this has ever happened before in most of our lifetimes. These teens and young adults are missing once-in-a-lifetime events, and there is no way to stop or rewind the clock so that they can have these moments back. Let them talk to you about what they are missing, and instead of dismissing their concerns or comparing them to the death and despair caused by the virus, hear them, understand that these are big moments in their lives, and let them grieve the loss of these opportunities.
Next, talk with them about ways to bridge the gaps between what they want in an ideal world and what they can have in the current climate. Couple your wisdom and knowledge of the ways of the world with their interests and use of technology to try to come up with creative ways to enrich their lives without having to see their friends and attend events in person. Be committed to this partnership in problem-solving, and be flexible about ways to help them feel connected to the events and people they feel that they are missing.
Encourage teens and young adults to think outside of themselves. The more concrete your encouragement, the better. For example, you could model empathy and benevolence by writing letters to residents in nursing homes or assisted living facilities and have your teen or young adult join you. Or have them call their grandparents or loved ones in vulnerable populations so that they can hear the voices of people whose lives might be at risk if they get the virus from someone who is seemingly health and symptom free. If you give them opportunities to help and sympathize with others, it may help them see beyond their own social woes and get a better sense of the bigger picture.
Finally, if you find that your child is exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety, reassure them that they are not alone. If you think they may be in crisis or needing professional help, point them to trusted resources: Mental health providers nationwide are gearing up to provide online mental health treatment (call your general practitioner or local mental health facility if you need a referral). Or if you find they just need someone to talk to (and they are not in crisis), they can also connect for free with volunteers on websites like 7 Cups of Tea and Crisis Text Line. Fortunately, those most in need of these online resources (i.e., teens and young adults with high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress) appear to be most open to using them (Toscos et al., 2018; Toscos et al., 2019).
Most importantly-- take care of yourself, too! The resources listed above are not just for your children. Take time to acknowledge your own stress and anxiety, and model good health hygiene by taking care of your own needs, both physical and psychological. "Do as I do, not just as I say," might be the best way to get everyone on the same page regarding social distancing.
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Toscos, T., Carpenter, M., Drouin, M., Roebuck, A., Kerrigan, C., & Mirro, M. (2018). College students’ experiences with and willingness to use different types of telemental health resources: Do gender, depression/anxiety, or stress levels matter? Telemedicine & E-health. doi:0.1089/tmj.2017.0243
Toscos, T., Coupe, A., Flanagan, M., Drouin, M., Carpenter, M., Reining, L., Roebuck, A., & Mirro, M. (2019). Teens using screens for help: Impact of suicidal ideation, anxiety and depression levels on youth preferences for telemental heath resources. JMIR Mental Health, 6(6), e13230.