Teens, this column is for you. You’ve been stuck at home with your parents for months now, unable to see any of your friends in person, at least not up close and personal like friends should be. Our current situation is a nightmare for most of you. I get it.
This is the stage in your life when you seek independence and turn to peers for companionship, when you define yourself in opposition to your parents and figure out who you are. The coronavirus pandemic interrupted that natural impulse and development. If it feels awful, that’s because it is!
Your parents want to help and keep you safe, but at the same time they are going through their own pandemic-related challenges and are also contributing to the problem. It can be hard to gain independence when you’re stuck together all day, every day!
So how can you get your needs met while avoiding strangling your parents? You can’t magically will them to be different.
Instead, take a strategic view of the situation. Stay focused on what you hope to achieve, and how you can get there — or somewhere close.
The sad truth is this: If you act like a child, your parents will treat you like one. If you yell and rail and sulk, they’ll also shut down or curb what little freedom you have left.
On the other hand, if you demonstrate that you’re a responsible member of the family, you’re more likely to win privileges.
Sometimes, this means showing more maturity than your parents, at least in the moment. After all, they’re also unhappy being stuck at home, also missing time with friends and favorite activities and are also stressed about finances and job security. Your parents need your emotional support and help around the house, more than ever.
This could mean that when your mom is yelling at you for leaving chip bags and soda cans all over the living room last night, you don’t yell back or get defensive. Take a deep breath and apologize. When you own your part of a problem, it takes the wind out of the other person’s sails.
Ask yourself, “How can I show them I’m responsible enough to be given more freedom?”
And define freedom as you see it. What do you need? Is it less mandatory family time or less nagging about homework or staying up and sleeping in later?
Negotiate with your parents so that your position and theirs are voiced, and reach a compromise you can live with. If they won’t discuss it now, ask if they’d be willing to talk about it tomorrow — maybe they need time to think about it.
Common conflict areas are kitchen use and cleaning, wake-up times, bedtimes, boredom, noise level, meals, food variety, video games and, of course, wanting to see your friends. When you begin negotiations, start with something small to win their trust.
For example, perhaps they want you to keep your room spotless all the time. Currently, you only clean when you feel like it. Try offering to tidy once a week for an hour and returning dirty dishes to the dishwasher every night. If you compromise, they might stop nagging.
Or if you don’t like the food being served, offer to take over the huge task of ordering grocery deliveries and wiping down supplies when they come into the house. When you’re in charge, you might have an opportunity to slip into the list the items you really enjoy. (Of course, you’ll want to agree with your parents on parameters for healthy and junk food, to avoid even more conflicts.)
To end the fights over screen time, suggest limits you can live with, like no more than 4 hours a day or no screens at meals or after 11 p.m.
As for seeing your friends, it’s simply not safe to socialize the way you used to. Yes, this is a huge disappointment. Quite simply, it sucks.
The reality is, even if you and your friend don’t get sick, one of you might pass along coronavirus and it could find its way back to one of your parents (who are at higher risk) or a grandparent.
Research to date shows that more than half of people infected with coronavirus don’t know it because they have mild or no symptoms. In other words, to put it gravely, what’s negligible for you could kill someone you love. You hold tremendous power to stop the transmission of this deadly disease — or to speed up community spread.
It can be hard to explain this to friends, especially if their parents are more lenient. Maybe it would help if you shared this column with those friends.
But once your parents trust that you’re being responsible in other areas, they might be willing to trust your assurances on socially distanced one-on-one get-togethers. Think two lawn chairs 6 feet apart in your front yard, or a socially distanced walk or bike ride.
Until scientists develop a treatment or vaccine for Covid-19, that may be the best you can do. And it’s a way you can keep all of us safe.
The most important relationship to tend right now is the one with yourself. We’re all under stress and grieving the loss of so many things: seeing friends, spring sports, end-of-year celebrations, etc. Figure out what helps you thrive by trying different routines and activities and assessing if you feel better that day.
Do you need fresh air every day to feel positive? Probably. Exercise? Always helps. Do you do better when you go to sleep and wake at the same time? Most people do.
Assess your use of social media, online videos and games to see if you feel better after a session — or worse. Maybe you enjoy an hour of screens, but after five hours you feel sick to your stomach. Next time, stop earlier.
Another natural development: Your teen brain is seeking risk. That’s why risky driving and experimenting with sex and drugs spikes in adolescence. Find safe ways to get risk. That could be chopping wood, watching scary movies, cooking with a flame or deep-frying chicken or portobello mushrooms. (Make sure to get safety instructions beforehand.)
If you’re bored, ask your parents to teach you a new skill, like planning and cooking dinner or changing the oil on the car. Or teach yourself, via YouTube!
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Brainstorm a list of activities that perk you up when you’re down, whether that’s watching a funny show, dancing to your favorite music, listening to a guided meditation, calling a friend, contributing to charity or hitting the punching bag for half an hour. See if you can come up with a dozen ideas for the next time you’re bored or angry or sad.
You have a chance to create your own “users manual” that will help sustain you through hard times, even after the pandemic.
Getting through our current crisis will give you new self-knowledge and resilience, which will last a lifetime.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a journalist, parent educator, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever — And What to Do About It,” and mother to two teenagers.