We all have someone in our lives who isn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough. A friend who keeps inviting you over for non-distanced, indoor dinner parties, the neighbour who wears their mask around their chin, a parent who refuses to acknowledge they are high risk. But what do you do when you’re having weekly (or daily) battles with your own child, particularly if it seems like they should be old enough and smart enough to know better?
That’s why one parent wrote to me, asking for help:
My 17-year-old son was arguing with me last night for hours about going away to a friend’s summer house with a bunch of friends. He does not understand the difference between his ice-cream-store job (where he’s the only person there, wears a mask and gloves the whole time) and spending four days with eight people in a house.
Another weekend, he seriously suggested taking the subway and train to visit his elderly, infirm grandparents, and couldn’t believe that I had a problem with this.
How can I convince him to take the virus seriously? He’s killing me, help!
Dear “He’s killing me,”
Since you say you were arguing for hours, I’m going to assume you’ve already had plenty of fact-based conversations with him in which you’ve explained how the virus spreads, the dangers it poses — particularly to high-risk groups, like his grandparents — and how we, as individuals, can help slow it down. So the problem is probably not a lack of information but more an issue of processing that information.
He, like all of us, is probably experiencing a variety of hard emotions right now. I talked to Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment of adolescents, about your situation, and she says confusion, fear and feelings of isolation (or being “left out”) could be driving much of his resistance to this new way of living. Let’s take a moment to pick those emotions apart a bit, starting with confusion.
In general, I think we’re all a little confused right now. The amount of time I personally spend trying to figure out whether it’s better for kids to go back to school in the fall or return to virtual learning is mind-boggling. I am stuck in a constant cyclical argument with myself, and it’s hell. And we’re probably modelling this confusion for them in a bunch of ways as things open up and then close back down again and we’re constantly evaluating whether it’s now safe to go to the hardware store or the dentist or a backyard get-together. Risk is a spectrum.
So although we can see how his ice cream store job, in which there are safety measures in place, is much different from going onto a train to visit his elderly, at-risk grandparents, it may genuinely still be confusing for him. How could serving ice cream be more important than visiting family?
“We’re getting such conflicting messages,” Greenberg says. “Getting on a subway is terrible, but wanting to visit his grandparents is lovely, so he’s confused.”
He may also be a little scared, even if he’s not showing it. He may be afraid of the virus itself or he may be afraid of the way the pandemic could wreak havoc on his social life and his friendships. Teenagers are already susceptible to peer pressure and are often driven by a deep need to be included. So if seven of his friends are allowed to go on a trip and he’s not? That’s hard to accept, no matter how many times you explain about the droplets.
One thing you might try, Greenberg suggests, is using a “Team Family” approach with him. We all know (or we all should know) that how we operate out in the world right now isn’t just about protecting ourselves; it’s also about protecting those we come into contact with. You are being careful to protect yourself but also your children and your partner and your parents. Try getting him on board with the concept of the family, as a unit, protecting each other. The idea that he can help keep you and his grandparents safe might give him a bit more ownership over his actions and their consequences.
But, well, as his mum, he’s probably also a tiny bit resistant to what you have to say anyway.
“Nobody really wants to take direction at this age from their parents,” Greenberg says. “Is there somebody else that could sit down and educate him on this? Because when it comes from her, he’s kind of impervious to it.”
Greenberg suggests enlisting the help of another adult that he looks up to — an aunt or uncle, a family friend, a coach, or even his paediatrician. Someone else might be able to get through the logic barrier that he’s putting up when he’s having these conversation with you. And whoever he talks to, whether it’s you or another trusted adult, should acknowledge how hard this is and ask him how he’s feeling.
If he’s still resistant after you’ve made sure he has all the information, acknowledged his feelings, tried to create a we’re-in-this-together feel within the family and had someone else try to get through to him, Greenberg says you ultimately have to stick to what you feel is right here — even if that means he’s mad at you for it.
Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line.
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