My 14-Year-Old Isn’t Social Distancing. What Should I Do?

This post was originally published on this site

Our Adolescence columnist, the psychologist Lisa Damour, responds to a reader’s question. The question has been edited and is being published with the consent of the person who submitted it.

[To submit a question, email]

Q. My 14-year-old daughter (who knows that I check her phone) went on what was supposed to be a socially distanced walk with her pal. Afterward, I found a TikTok draft of their attempt at a “social distance” dance, which ended up in a pile of giggles and bumping into each other. I’m disappointed, and am wondering what I should do when she asks to see her friends again.

A. Whether or not you inform your daughter of what you found on her phone, you have a helpful takeaway to work with. You now know that it’s probably not realistic to expect unsupervised teenagers to stay at least six feet apart from their peers.

Needless to say, the current social distancing guidelines put parents and teenagers in a terrible position. Adolescents long to see their friends, and parents understandably want to grant that wish. Further, for teenagers, much of the fun of being with peers rests on not being with adults at the same time. So it is easy enough to understand why a parent might agree to let a teenager — especially a thoughtful and responsible one — spend time alone with friends on the condition that she or he maintains the physical distance that experts are strongly recommending.

But there are two factors that make sending adolescents out on their own a dicey proposition: the human need for physical contact, and what is known as hot cognition.

Let’s start with the basic biological need for touch, which both boosts mood and reduces stress. If you observe teenagers under normal conditions, you’ll see them satisfy this need by huddling, roughhousing and literally leaning on one another in gestures of platonic affection. Under the current emotionally taxing conditions, some teenagers may be accepting hugs from their parents, cuddling with their pets or wrestling with their siblings. But plenty of adolescents are hungry for touch, perhaps more than they are conscious of or, at any rate, willing to share with their parents.

A teenager who promises to forfeit physical closeness for a chance to be with much-missed friends may be making that promise earnestly. But we should bear in mind that adolescents can be prone to say — and truly mean — one thing when talking with adults, yet go on to do something else altogether when with their peers.

Here, hot cognition is to blame. Studies have shown that the quality of teenagers’ judgment can depend on whether they are analyzing a social situation at a distance, or are actually in the midst of it. When adolescents are thinking about a situation, but not in the heat of the moment — what psychologists refer to as cold cognition — they tend to reason like adults. But when teenagers are with their peers and wanting social acceptance — so-called hot cognition — their good judgment can be readily outmatched by their urge to go with the social flow, even if that flow involves behavior that they know to be problematic.

Given this, when your daughter next asks to see her friends, you might say, “I’ve thought it over, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll be able to stay at least six feet away from your friends, especially when you miss them so much.” You might also let her know that, even though she might plan to respect the social distancing guidelines, you don’t feel good about putting her in the likely situation of needing to rebuff a dear friend’s spontaneous and enthusiastic hug.

Do not expect this to be a fun conversation, especially if you decide to tell her that you know she has already broken your rules. Unfortunately, the conditions of Covid-19 offer parents and teenagers a limited number of unsatisfying options, but partial solutions may be better than no solution at all.

For example, if local restrictions and the health factors in your household permit, you might see if she wants to invite her friends for an outdoor “six feet a-party” at your home or while you tag along at a public location. They’ll need to be where you can see them, even if at a distance or through a window, so that your daughter can blame you for her good behavior while enjoying the company of her friends.

Further, you’ll decide whether it makes sense to raise the topic of her longing for physical contact, or if that’s better left unsaid. Either way, consider upping your hugs, casually rubbing her back as you pass by where she studies or attempting some other way to make physical contact that fits with the context of your relationship — maybe in the guise of something like doing each other’s hair or nails.

Beyond coming up with practical, albeit frustrating, compromises, we can offer empathy. This often goes farther that we think. You might say, “I know that this is not what you want, and I cannot tell you how much I wish things were different. We’ll do the best we can with the options we have, but I get it if you’re really unhappy about it.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

Be prepared for your daughter to insist (probably accurately) that some of her peers are being allowed to socialize with friends and hang out with romantic partners without supervision. To this you might respond that it is always the case that different families make different rules, and that you will be sure to revisit your decisions as public health guidance in your area changes.

Given that it looks like we may be in for a long haul with Covid-19, we parents will need to get accustomed to coming up with creative solutions when possible and providing generous support and compassion for the painful situations that are beyond our control. It’s not as much as we want to offer, but it’s likely to be enough to get us through.

This column does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.