Here's what to say—and, more important, what not to say—when having difficult conversations about their behavior during the pandemic.

By Blythe Copeland
December 07, 2020
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Parenting a teenager presents plenty of challenges—even without the stress of a global pandemic. And getting a teen who resists rules and curfews to follow public health guidelines isn't always easy. In general, teens may not take COVID-19 as seriously as younger children, says Yamalis Diaz, Ph.D, a clinical assistant professor at the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU Langone Health Hassenfeld Children's Hospital. "Teens are in a period of development during which their behavior and decision-making is highly motivated by social and peer influence, independence-seeking, boundary-testing, and even a little risk-taking," says Dr. Diaz. "Therefore, concerns about COVID-19 may not override those influences enough to change their behavior in a meaningful way. This doesn't mean there aren't other ways to help them take this all seriously. It just means it may take a little more parent effort because, if left to their own decision-making, they may not do what we'd like."

Ahead, Dr. Diaz's best advice for talking—and getting through—to your almost-adult about the pandemic's severity.

Credit: Getty / valentinrussanov

Do try to understand how they're feeling.

Adjusting to social distancing and virtual learning is a difficult task for many teenagers. "Teens are highly driven by peer influences and social activities, so they are definitely having a lot of trouble with the social distancing guidelines and the cancellation of in-person learning and other social activities," says Dr. Diaz. "This may lead to depressed mood, irritability, and anxiety." Replacing their school-day relationships with virtual connections can also have an unexpected effect on teens: They're more tired. "Because they're not seeing friends at school like they typically might, they may save their socializing for later in the evening, which can also mean that their sleep schedules are impacted, further impacting mood and well-being," she says.

Don't turn the conversation into a lecture.

No matter the discussion topic—the importance of wearing masks, why she can't go to that sleepover, why he can't sign up for wrestling this year—Dr. Diaz recommends framing a difficult conversation as a "love sandwich" or "feedback sandwich:" Make your point—briefly!—in between two positive notions. "Start by validating how hard this must all be for them. Invite them to share how they're feeling," she explains. "Raise the specific concerns you'd like to discuss while being mindful not to 'pile it on' or lecture. This should be a skinny sandwich! End with another slice of love—validation, positive feedback for listening, sharing, understanding, accepting your decision—anything they did well during discussion. Then try your hardest to stop talking."

Keeping it short, sweet, and simple is one of the most critical elements of talking to teenagers. "If the purpose is to engage them in meaningful conversation, get to your point," says Dr. Diaz. "Super wordy discussions are perhaps the quickest and surest way to lose a teen's attention and increase the likelihood that they will begin to get frustrated and respond negatively. Put a period on the end of it and then ask them to share their thoughts." And then resist the temptation to start bringing up other issues—her math grade or the chores he forgot. "It's better to have meaningful discussions in bite-sized pieces than to serve up all of Thanksgiving dinner in one discussion," adds Dr. Diaz.

Do keep it neutral.

Stressing the global effects of the pandemic or the risk to your community as a whole may not be the best approach for teenagers. "Teenage behavior is not very well influenced by future or distant—like what they perceive to be happening to other people—consequences, so when parents focus on these during discussions, teens begin to tune out or get frustrated," says Dr. Diaz. Focusing on the scariest outcomes can also increase your teen's anxiety and make them withdraw or turn the discussion into an argument. "Parents can still make the seriousness clear in a neutral, matter-of-fact way, and then focus the discussion on more immediate or personally relevant consequences of not adhering to rules and guidelines—like not being able to attend sports practice," says Dr. Diaz. "Definitely avoid statements that place blame such as, 'I got sick because of you.'"

Don't jump right to punishments.

If your teens still aren't following the rules you've set about masking, social distancing, or completing their schoolwork, implement positive reinforcement before punishment. "I can't emphasize this enough—always start with rewards. Always," says Dr. Diaz. "It's better to positively reinforce what you want them to do than to wait to punish what they do wrong." Connect the behaviors you want to see with incentives specific to your teen—extend their curfew if they keep their location tracker on; allow more gaming time when they complete their schoolwork during specific hours; offer a pass on chores for proper and consistent masking. "Virtual learning, social distancing, and the cancelation of so many important events has been very challenging," she explains. "Don't lose sight of that."

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