teenage girl
By Zephon Lister (Associate Professor of Counseling and Family Sciences) - June 16, 2020

A few weeks ago I was driving home with my three teenage sons--the oldest being 14 and a set of 13-year-old twin boys--from a local edible plant nursery that has stayed open during this COVID-19 crisis. We had gone by to pick up some herb and vegetable plants for the small garden we recently started in the back of our condo. On the way home, one of my boys said, "You know, the thing that I hate most about this pandemic is that I can't hang out with my friends." For many teens, socializing with their friends is a large part of their daily lived experience. From school to sports and other activities, church, social events, or just hanging out, bonding with peers is one of the essential social and developmental tasks of teens.

As we drove home, I spoke with them about what a pandemic is and the importance of social distancing during this time. One of my sons then said, "I know why we have to social distance, but if I don't get that constant contact with my friends, I start to get moody and even a little depressed." We went on to talk about different topics for the rest of the ride home, but I continued to think about what my sons said about how important it is to hang out with their friends.

Although I wouldn't describe my wife and I as helicopter parents, we are conscientious. For example, our sons do not have their own smart phones (we do have phones they can take with them when going on trips, attending practices or events) or social media accounts, and their tablets are synched with our devices so we can monitor what they are searching and watching online. However, that evening I spoke with my wife about the conversation the boys and I had in the car. From that discussion, we came up with a few ideas to respond to our sons' feedback, and they may be of some help to you as well.

The first thing we did was to have a family dinner and spend time acknowledging our sons' frustration, validating their experience, and exploring with them ways that they could continue to connect with their friends. From that discussion we came away with three ways to respond to their expressed need. First, we decided to loosen the rules around social media, texting, and time spent online. Second, we've reached out to parents for potential opportunities of socially-distanced meet ups. Finally, my wife and I began to interact with them around activities they would usually do on their own.

Loosening Media Rules

For social media, we discussed which social media platforms they wanted to use to interact with their friends. We vetted these platforms and discussed safety, parameters of usage, and time spent, which equated to the time they would spend with their friends on an average school or weekend day. We found that they enjoyed interacting most on Instagram and via text messaging. On Zoom, they also planned get-togethers for group chats, to play games, watch the same show or even just eat and talk.

Socially-Distanced Meet-Ups

My kids also reached out to church and school friends to explore opportunities for meeting in open places (e.g., beaches and parks) to interact at a distance. Although these times have been fewer, they have been welcomed. Activities have included socially-distanced hikes, watching the bioluminescent red tide at a local San Diego beach, and walks in the park. When we come home, we have to engage in our arduous decontamination routine, but this nuisance is a small price to pay for the richness gained through these experiences. There is something different about being in the physical space of someone else, even if it is at a distance.

Family Time

If you were to walk into our living room, you'd feel like were walking into a music studio. Each of our kids plays a different instrument. One the guitar, another the drums, and the third the piano. Usually they are encouraged to practice on their own, but my wife and I now often sit with them during their practices and provide support and encouragement. There's nothing like playing for an audience. These times are not about feedback on how they are doing or what they can do to improve, but more about just communicating: "I see you", "I hear you", "I acknowledge you and what you are doing", "you are not alone". We plan Friday night jam sessions to bring in the Sabbath and hold "house church" on Saturdays. One of the unexpected outcomes of this pandemic experience is that we've had more time together as a family.

We don't know what things will look like in a post COVID-19 world. The twins, who are graduating from eighth grade this year, are having to settle for a "drive-through" graduation. No "Pomp and Circumstance" to guide their parade down an aisle where they will sit and listen to a speech about their bright and boundless futures. I recently checked in with the boys to see if the efforts we had taken we helpful. They still report being bored and wishing they could get out the house more, but that they did feel like they were getting their social needs met, even if it is at a distance.