teenager window woman girl outsie

This column is the fifth in a series providing information and suggestions about parenting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Therapists, authors and child experts Jim Wellborn, Ph.D. and Stacy Jagger, LMFT will be helping parents explain to their kids what is happening as well as how to deal with the various challenges of having kids home for the next month or more. They will be giving you suggestions and advice about setting up schedules, dealing with bored and irritable kids, continuing their schoolwork from home, keeping them occupied, maintaining friendships and social connections, managing and monitoring screen time and taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.

It is so much easier to talk to children about social distancing (see our previous column about talking to children) because you can tell them and then make them do what they are supposed to do whether they want to or not. Teens on the other hand, argue, complain and then try to get around the limits you impose on them. It is crucial to educate teens about the logic (and safety) behind isolation and social distancing during this pandemic if they are going to do their part. So, let’s get started

The Average Teenager. There are some typical adolescent characteristics that have serious implications during this pandemic. The challenge will be to try to override or minimize them. For example, adolescents have a sense of invincibility when it comes to risk taking (and that’s when the risk is obvious).  The virus is invisible and the risk of catching it is statistically small. Teenagers will need help seeing that the risk is real and serious but not obvious. It they wait until it is right in front of them it will be too late for them to do what they can to help.

Adolescents are focused on developing their personal identity which means thinking first about what is important in their life. This is not selfishness. It is more like self-centeredness; thinking a lot about who they are and who they want to become. At the same time, they are only just beginning to truly be able to take the perspective of other people. Because of this, teenagers will need help recognizing the ways their behavior could have serious even deadly consequences for others. They will also need to see how acting in the best interests of the community is part of what it means to be a responsible citizen. 

Peers become a primary source of support, validation and entertainment during adolescence. Staying connected to friends is extremely important to teens.  Social distancing and isolation to reduce the spread of the virus presents a direct threat to this very important part of their life. And, despite how often adolescents are on social media, nothing can truly substitute for direct interaction with peers. This is made exponentially worse if your teen has a dating partner! Your adolescent will need help understanding that avoiding direct contact with their friends is an important sacrifice for them to make. 

Teenagers can be really bad about having a distorted time perspective. An hour can seem like days when they are feeling deprived. The sacrifices needed during these hard times will span months. Even the most dedicated teen will begin to question the necessity of these sacrifices after a couple of weeks (i.e., right about now). Teenagers will need help remaining aware of why these sacrifices are important to make as it drags on and on. 

Teens are used to making up their own minds about whether their parents (or any adults) know what they are talking about or are just being stupid. This is true for staying up late, using recreational substances and doing mundane but repetitive activities like chores or homework. It should be easy helping them understand the importance of cutting off all contact with their friends and avoiding all direct social interaction for months. Yeah, right. Your adolescent will need a LOT of help recognizing that this is not just another time they are being grounded. They will need to realize for themselves that these extreme measures are critical to actually save lives, probably not their own but maybe yours. 

But there is hope. Teenagers are capable of critical thinking. They can problem solve. They can analyze situations and draw informed conclusions. They can think in sophisticated ways (even though, like adults, they don’t always USE these skills). You will need to help your teen use these cognitive and intellectual abilities to understand the reasons for isolation and social distancing. 

Teens care about other people and being a good person. They are loyal and compassionate and will make personal sacrifices when they understand the importance of their actions for the health and well being of people they care about and their community. 

Here are some suggestions to help your teen recognize the importance of isolation and social distancing. 

Take it seriously. Your teen has no reference for appreciating an event of this magnitude. As we mentioned in the column on social isolation and children, there have not been conditions that require this kind of sacrifice of essential freedoms, liberties and luxuries by the entire country since World War II. There has not been this kind of disruption of the economy since the Great Depression.  We are all going to have to endure some significant sacrifices.  Isolation and social distancing is just the first of these. Your kids need to know that this is a big deal. This requires a framing of social distancing and isolation as a civic responsibility; something we do for other people, people we may not even know.   

Teens, because of their age and developmental stage, will not take things like social distancing seriously.  Isolation is their kryptonite. They are in the age of invincibility. They are only just beginning to learn how to take other’s perspectives. They tend to minimize the more significant, long term effects of their actions and decisions. How do you talk to them about this so that they are most likely to get it?

You are a teenager now. When you are talking to them about the seriousness of this shut down, it is helpful to bring in the “You are teenager now” argument.  Saying “Stop being a child” is not the same thing. “You are a teenager now” is a way to call on them to rise to the occasion. Included in this are parallel phrases like “Your younger siblings look up to you and watch what you do,” “You are not a child any more” and “You can’t afford to look at this like you are still a child.”      

Make time for just the two of you to your serious talk. Take a walk (with facemasks while remaining 6 feet from others at all times). Sit and have a glass of tea (we are in the South after all) where you won’t be disturbed for an hour or so. Let them know they will need to begin to take responsibility for keeping the community safe. This is not a child’s responsibility. It is an adult responsibility and in extraordinary times, adolescents must step up. We are all depending on them (and each other). Ask them what sacrifices they must make to help the family and the community stay safe. Talk to them about what you are doing as an adult to keep people safe.    

Educate. While we recommend that you limit the factual information provided to children, teens need to have some of the cold hard facts about what will happen even if they “hang out with just a few friends.” They need to know they are putting the rest of society at risk. Social distancing is difficult for adults to truly appreciate. It is no wonder teens aren’t taking it seriously. They need to have information about what social distancing is and why it is necessary. This is best done by making time with your kid to really talk about social distancing and isolation. Here are some really good resources you can watch together as a starting point. They are short and to the point. 

Medical resources. A huge number of people will get this virus. A significant percent of those will be sick enough to need hospitalization. A small percentage of hospitalized people will be so severely ill they will need a ventilator to survive. A percentage of these severely ill people on ventilators will die. Here’s the problem. If everyone gets sick at the rates they are now, there won’t be enough hospital space and there definitely won’t be enough ventilators to keep them breathing until they recover. This is why we are all trying to reduce infection rates by isolating and social distancing. Everything you need to tell your teen can be found on this five minute video on what happens without social distancing and isolation. 

Flattening the curve. Flatten the curve. Flatten the curve. Everyone is saying flatten the curve. Slow the rate of infection. Spread it out over time to save the most lives. Your teenager will need to understand this concept since it is the basis for limiting social interactions and contact with people in the community.  This article gives a straightforward explanation. Make a time for you and your kids to read it and then discuss what it actually means (to make sure they get it). 

Isolation versus social distancing. Your teen will need to understand that the most effective way to minimize the death and suffering brought on by this virus is for each person to isolate themselves from everyone else. They are likely to focus primarily on social distancing as the primary strategy because it will mean they can still be around people. The problem is that social distancing (i.e., putting significant distance between you and other people when you are out in the world) is a compromise for when you must go out into the community for specific and necessary reasons. The profound economic impact we are all experiencing will be wasted if people continue to go out unnecessarily. Isolation is the most effective way to save lives (even though you won’t be able to see it happening until much later). 

6 foot rule Then, when they are out in the community, they are unlikely to respect the 6 foot rule of social distancing. I mean, how are they all gonna fit in the car if they have to stay 6 feet apart? These videos are good illustrations of how the virus spreads by coughing and sneezing; even from 6 feet. And now there is evidence that you can catch the virus from just talking to someone who is infected. So, the 6 foot rule is the least useful way to protect yourself (and, therefore, other people who you might infect) from the virus. It’s just better than nothing.

When can I hang out with friends again? There is lots of speculation and lots of uninformed optimism. There are five conditions that will effect when extreme measures will no longer be needed to address the spread of the virus.  Your kid can track them for themselves. Currently we are 0 for 5. 

  1. The number of cases goes down (instead of up) in a state or region
  2. There are reliable tests for the presence of the virus in specific people.
  3. Appropriate masks are available for medical personnel treating people with the virus.
  4. Hospitals are prepared to treat everyone who is sick.
  5. The public health system can identify anyone with the virus and the people they have been in contact with. 

Sympathize. Isolating and keeping their distance is a big sacrifice. While, on the one hand, your kid should do what is right. On the other hand, it really will be difficult. Let them know that you understand how difficult this is for them.  Find ways you can validate the different feelings your kid is experiencing. (This is particularly important for kids who are not very emotionally self-aware.)

“It is really hard to not be able to see your friends.” 

“It is kind of lonely not being able to hang out with people.” 

“You seem a little more edgy today than usual. Is the frustration getting to you?” 

Compensate. If they are going to be a teenager now and act more responsibly, they will need to have some ways it will benefit them. But, not crude rewards like money. Responsible behavior earns privileges and opportunities. It may be a time to relax some of the limits you set on how much time they can spend in their room, using social media or extending bedtime (though still with some limits as we will discuss in the upcoming column on getting a routine going). 

Anticipate. It’s not forever but it will sure seem like it. As we wrote in the column on social distancing and children, it is important to talk about social isolation as longer term. It’s going to be happening for a while. Talk to them about why this will be necessary. They will need to know about the waves of infection that can occur until a vaccine is developed. Use phrases like “as long as we need to” or “until we can all be sure that people will stay well." Another character building opportunity would be to include something like “we will do our part as long as necessary, even if it is difficult, because that’s how we do things in our family.” 

Compliment. Your kid will need validation they are doing the right thing by isolating and maintaining social distance. Mention your appreciation for the sacrifice they are making. “I really appreciate how you have followed through with this isolation. It makes me feel really proud.” Emphasize that following these guidelines is a noble cause. It is probably the first time they have been able to make a sacrifice for the community, not just for someone in particular.  “There are times when we are called on to do something, not just for people we know and love, but for the community. This is what patriotism means. This is civic duty. I’m really proud of you for showing you know how to make big sacrifices.” We can only hope that world events won’t require this same kind of sentiment and commitment again any time soon. 

Model. Your teen will watch what your are doing and listen to what you are saying. Unfortunately, teens are able to recognize hypocrisy. If you want them to make the right choices and do the right thing it works best if you show them by example. 

Open Door. And finally, everyone is already feeling some significant cabin fever. Let your kid know they can talk to you when things get really hard, especially if they find themselves starting to figure how to escape. Reassure them y’all will try to find a way for them to both avoid or minimize transmitting the virus and get out for a bit. Problem solve to find an alternative. It might be enough to just go driving around. You might need to push the isolation a bit to find a way from your kid and their friend(s) to meet up while keeping the 6 foot rule or and wearing masks (that y’all have made together as a family project. FUN! That’s sarcasm, by the way). You want them talking to you about it rather than sneaking out like a typical teen.


James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.


Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting.  Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren.  You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.

stacy jagger

Stacy Jagger, LMFT, RPT-S


Stacy Jagger is a mother of four and a therapist to many. She is on a mission to restore wonder to childhood, connection to families, and intimacy to relationships. She is the architect of the 30 Day Blackout, a break from technology designed to bring parents and children closer together and unleash the natural creativity in all of us. A musician at heart, she designed Music with Mommie, a parent-child bonding class that utilizes instruments and play to facilitate connection. Stacy has spent the last several years of her career building Music City Family Therapy, her practice in Brentwood. She lives on a small farm outside the city with her husband of 20 years, a pony named Mister Rogers, a few dozen chickens and a gaggle of ducks.

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