Five strategies to encourage teens to practice social distancing

September 22, 2020 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD
social distancing

Recent increases in the number of COVID-19 cases in U.S. have included a rise in the number of people under the age of 18 who are contracting the virus. Part of the reason for the growth in the number of teens and young adults who test positive for COVID-19 is their failure, or in some cases refusal, to follow social distancing recommendations.

Why aren’t teens taking social distancing seriously when the daily news headlines highlight the growing case numbers in the U.S.? For teens, gathering in groups and not wearing masks is in part due to the fact that their brains are not yet fully developed. The frontal lobes of their brains, where impulse control, risk assessment, complex decision making, and abstract thinking occur, are still developing. In addition, this age group is highly influenced by the behavior of peers, so when teens see other young people not practicing social distancing in their neighborhoods or on social media, they may imitate those unsafe behaviors.

Parents know that arguing with their teens is not likely to change their behavior. So, what strategies can you try to encourage your teen and young adult children to practice social distancing effectively and keep themselves, their family, and their friends safer?

  • Make sure they have the facts about COVID-19. There’s a great deal of misinformation circulating about the virus, especially on websites and through social media. Sit down with your teens and offer them evidence-based resources where they can learn about COVID-19 and what they can do to lower their risk of contracting it. Options to consider include the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and state and local health departments.
  • Practice what you preach. Set a good example for your children by carefully and consistently following social distancing protocols. Wear a mask (and wear it properly) when you’re in public, maintain a six foot distance between yourself and others when possible, and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds often throughout the day.
  • Open a dialogue. Listen to your teens and be empathetic. Let them express all their feelings—anger, fear, sadness—without judgement or devaluing their feelings. Then make sure your teens know what your expectations are about social distancing and state those expectations as simply as possible. For example, tell them they must wear a mask whenever they’re in public and that they cannot attend parties. In addition to setting expectations, share with your children why these behaviors are important and how they help slow the spread of the virus and protect friends and family who may become seriously ill or die if they’re infected. And if they aren’t listening to you, find an adult they trust and respect and ask her or him to talk with your child and share your message.
  • Communicate with the parents of their friends. Have a frank discussion with all of your teen’s friends’ parents about your rules regarding social distancing during the pandemic and make sure you’re all on the same page. If some families are not practicing social distancing, discourage your child from spending time with them.
  • Help them manage the stress and mental health issues that may arise. Keep an eye out for signs of depression and anxiety that may result from the stress of living through the pandemic and being separated from friends. If you child does seems to be showing symptoms of mental health issues or if their previously diagnosed mental health condition seems to be less under control than it has been, arrange for them to talk with a mental health professional by phone or video chat. You can also help them manage stress and feelings of anxiety and sadness by sharing coping strategies such as exercise, meditation and mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, expressing themselves through art or writing, or getting involved in giving back to others, for example doing yard work for an elderly neighbor or helping a younger sibling with homework.



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