Why I'm So Worried About My Teen During Social Distancing

by Christine Organ
Why I'm So Worried About My Teen During Social Distancing
Alys Tomlinson/Getty

As families try to adjust to the “new (temporary) normal” of the global pandemic, social distancing, and lockdowns, there are mountains of articles and advice on how to help young kids. I’ve seen tons of advice for dealing with the shenanigans of your new “co-workers,” and there are articles on how to talk to your kids without scaring them. But there isn’t much said about the big kids in our lives – teenagers.

Teenagers, by nature, need independence. They need time away from their parents. They rely on their peers and friends. In fact, according to Orlando Health, a study published in Child Development found that teenagers who had close friendships were less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety even into their mid-twenties. They also had a greater sense of self-worth. Experts say that friendships begin to take on the “attachment relationship” that teens had with their parents when they were younger.

“[These] are really very, very close and emotionally intimate relationships,” Jaana Juvonen, developmental psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, told The Atlantic. “And even if that particular relationship doesn’t last, it has ramifications on ­subsequent relationships.”

I’ll admit, I’ve often bemoaned the fact that my teenage son seems so dependent on his friends. I sometimes wish that he wouldn’t need to be texting his friends so much or that he would be content to spend time with his family or even alone, that he wouldn’t need the constant stimulation that his friends provide. And I suspect I’m not alone. According to The Atlantic, “Too often educators and parents fail to appreciate the potential upside of these strong ties. Teachers often separate friends, whose banter can be disruptive in the classroom. Yet when researchers record student conversations during class, there is evidence that while kids are problem solving or working together, students collaborate more effectively with their friends.”

But these relationships – and even the “peer pressure” we often look so negatively upon – are essential to development and can even be wildly beneficial. “It’s really interesting that we as adults in the society often regard friendships more as a nuisance and a distraction rather than give them the value that they really deserve,” Juvonen told The Atlantic.

These healthy and essential relationships and interactions have been erased – or severely hindered – from our teens’ lives now due to social distancing. They aren’t chatting with their classmates while they work through a chemistry experiment. They can’t tell jokes (most of which are somewhat inappropriate) while eating a sandwich at the lunch table. They can’t trash talk over a friendly basketball game at the park down the street.

Sure, they can still FaceTime and text and hang out in an Xbox game of Fortnite. But it isn’t the same because, for the most part, these interactions are now supervised. We, their parents, are in the next room. We are sitting next to them on the couch while they FaceTime their friends. We can hear their cussing and laughter through their closed (and locked) bedroom door.

Some parents might think this isn’t necessarily bad. After all, we have more insight into our teens’ social lives now. We know when and how they communicate, and we can step in when we see something questionable. In some cases, this might be true. But overall they are being deprived of the freedom to figure things out from their peers and in situations away from their parents.

As most experts recognize, it is important for kids to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. And teens can learn a hell of a lot when they aren’t under their parents’ watchful eye. What’s more, teens need independence and autonomy. As Greater Good Magazine by UC-Berkeley points out, “Healthy, self-disciplined, motivated teenagers have a strong sense of control over their lives. A mountain of research demonstrates that agency is one of the most important contributors to both success and happiness.”

But here we are, all up in each other’s business 24/7 (or pretty damn close to it), and many teens are really struggling with this. So what can we do to help?

Well, as with most things, I think the first step is to acknowledge the validity of their feelings and the struggles. My teen son – an outgoing extrovert in just about every sense of the word – is having a particularly hard time being physically separated from his friends. My husband and I have tried to acknowledge this as much as we can. As the grief expert David Kessler has said, we’re grieving. “This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” he said.

Yes, our kids are grieving – and acknowledging this can help us all move through it. “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us,” Kessler added.

It’s also important to cut our teens and ourselves some slack. Rules need to change. We all need a little more grace. I don’t presume to be an expert or have the answers on any of this (in fact, the song, “Does Anyone Have a Map?” from the musical Dear Evan Hansen has never felt more applicable). But we’ve made a few changes – both intentionally and organically – that seem to help.

– Screen time limits have gone out the window. Our teen is allowed to play Xbox for much longer than usual, as long as he’s playing with his friends. That way they can talk and laugh and do all those things that teen boys do while playing video games.

– E-sleepovers happen. WTF are e-sleepovers, you ask? Well, I was confused at first too, but basically it’s just a group of kids playing Xbox together late into the night and then watching a show together over FaceTime.

– Cussing and crude jokes are overlooked. For the most part, anyway. I mean we all have limits, and there are still some standards of decency.

– We don’t micromanage school work for their remote learning requirements. It either gets done or it doesn’t.

– And finally, we’re pretty frank with our teen about what’s going on and how we’re feeling. We don’t censor information or hide our emotions the way we might if our kids were younger. Teens can sniff out inauthenticity and bullshit like nothing else, so we’re giving it to them straight (as much as possible anyway).

I’m absolutely heartbroken for all the teens who are missing milestones because of this pandemic. Graduations. Proms. Sports tournaments. But even aside from those once-in-a-lifetime events, our teens are experiencing huge losses — of independence, of freedom, of socializing and peer interaction – that will impact them for the rest of their lives. While these losses might seem small in comparison to the loss of jobs and lives, for our kids, these losses are enormous.

So let’s be gentle with our teens. Let’s relax on the screen time limits and let them swear in front of us. Let’s not worry so much about whether our kids’ education is suffering, and focus on making sure their emotional wellbeing isn’t suffering. And as much as I never thought I’d say this, maybe – just maybe – this is a time to be our kids’ friends, and not just their parents.