Staying Home or House Arrest? Quarantine and Teens
These strategies can help you find the big parenting opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
by Ari Tuckman, PsyD, CST
Being on lockdown at home is a challenge for all of us—except maybe our pets, who are reveling in all the attention. Quarantine may feel especially constrictive for teens, who place a high value on socializing with their friends, preferably away from adult eyes and ears. It’s developmentally appropriate for them to seek this independence, knowing that they have a safe place to which they can return. Deprived of these times to venture forth on their own, their disappointment may transform into a surly teen attitude that makes you wonder what you did so wrong (and maybe gives your own parents some small, much-delayed vindication).
Just as quarantine has offered us all sorts of unexpected opportunities (like finally organizing your sock drawer and quantifying how much your pets sleep), it also offers opportunities to have some important conversations with your teens. There are some big life lessons to be drawn from these trying times.
Complain, then move on.
Yes, this sucks. Yes, it is totally unfair that they can’t see their friends, that spring sports or the school play got cancelled, that graduation will probably be online (lame), and so on. All of this is true. Validate their feelings and spend some time letting them grieve these lost opportunities.
At a certain point, though, we need to begin to shift toward putting our energy into looking for the opportunities that we do have, even if they are less than what we would hope for. So, what can they do in these strange times? What would be enjoyable or meaningful, at least somewhat?
Spend some time helping your teen(s) brainstorm what they could do. Ask them to write it out, so they have something to refer to when they can’t seem to think of anything. Rather than constantly comparing the new list to what “should” be, they can focus on what is good about what is. Suggest they get creative and find some entertaining options that don’t involve their phone.
Discuss that life is unfair.
This may seem eye-rollingly obvious, but times like this may be a good opportunity to discuss your family’s place in the world. If you are all relatively okay financially and medically, then have some conversations about how there are many, many families in this country who are paying a disproportionate price in these stressful times.
Talk about the service workers who have suddenly been laid off, through no fault of their own. Or medical personnel and grocery store employees who need to risk their health to serve others, sometimes under far from ideal circumstances.
If your family is one of the many families paying that disproportionate price, then talk about how you are going to get through it. It’s okay to worry, but we try to not let it take over. All of this doesn’t mean that your teen can’t also be upset about what they are missing out on, but it sometimes helps to put our unhappiness into a larger context.
Discuss that uncertainty isn’t new.
Your teen may be pestering you to find out when this is all going to be over, when they can finally go out and see their friends again. The honest answer is that no one knows. It won’t be forever, but it won’t be tomorrow. This situation is evolving and what happens later depends on what we do now, plus a lot of other variables, so we need to wait and see what develops.
People don’t like uncertainty, but it is always a part of our lives. What is new about this pandemic is the extent to which it is impacting the entire world. Usually uncertainty happens on a smaller scale—such as, does that cutie in math class like me, too? Being able to tolerate uncertainty is an important life skill, especially for those who tend to be impulsive.
So, what do you do to make it easier to tolerate waiting for things to unfold? What have you suggested to your kids in the past when it was hard for them to just sit and wait? We often find it helpful to distract ourselves with other thoughts and activities when more thinking is just running us around the same circles, so talk to your teen about what else they can do to get out of their heads.
Notice moments of connection.
These powerful moments of connection, the ones that influence our worldview, that we remember forever, can’t necessarily be orchestrated. Sometimes they just happen, as the conversation moves from one topic to the next. As parents, we can keep a little bit of an eye out for those sometimes fleeting opportunities where we have a receptive audience and can tip the conversation this way or that way.
I know your teens will never forget this unusual stretch of time. My hope is that twenty years from now, they will have a few really clear memories of conversations that changed their life, at least a little.
Ari Tuckman, PsyD, CST, is a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and co-chair of CHADD’s conference committee. He is the author of four books on ADHD, including his most recent one, ADHD After Dark: Better Sex Life, Better Relationship.
I thought it might be helpful to our teen if they could focus on helping someone, instead of only thinking of themselves. Do you have any suggestions for how they help serve others when they need to social distance?