As humans, we are experiencing unprecedented times.

We're living through a pandemic. We're socially isolated and are being quarantined from family and friends. For some, being together with family has been a blessing, but for others, it's been a hardship.

This is especially true for our teens; being socially isolated from friends can be excruciating for them. If your teen was super social prior to the pandemic, you understand their struggle. However, some parents may be thinking, “Why is my teen struggling not seeing their friends when they spent so much time on technology prior to the pandemic?”

Let’s process this for a moment. Prior to the pandemic, teens were spending on average of nine hours per day socializing on technology. Now, even though they were communicating with friends during this time, it's not as fruitful as face-to-face communication.

Humans — especially teens — are considered ultrasocial beings. To get full satisfaction from relationships, we must see the other person, watch their non-verbals, hear their tones and touch them. Yes, we need touch, comfort and lots of hugs. Additionally, teens don't enjoying being told what to do. It's like giving up candy — once you do you crave it even more. Teens are living in a time where they crave and — I would argue — need socialization. They're being told they can't spend time with friends so they want to. Finally, a crucial part of adolescent development is becoming independent. Part of this is making relationships outside of immediate family. Looking back to high school, you may remember how important it was for you to spend time with your friends, and how frustrated you were when your parents said no.

Our teens are living in unparalleled times, where they need to socialize to help them develop but are limited due to social distancing restrictions. What do we do? How can our teens continue to develop relationships with these restrictions? We have some options.

• Make your technology friend time fruitful. Events, parties and social functions are more reinforcing than just sitting around with their friends. Encourage your teen to create events with their friends such as Zoom charades, movie nights or create a new game.

• Exercise with friends. Exercise is easier with people. There are numerous free exercises program online that teens can do virtually with their friends.

• Recreate in-person events virtually. No prom? Create a Zoom prom. Have the host be the DJ and have the teens dress up, decorate their rooms, take selfies and even record it. They will be able to tell their future kids and grandchildren about how they created the first virtual prom.

• Commit to a daily or weekly check-in. Sometimes, we feel awkward when we have not spoken with a friend in awhile or we may be less prone to cancel when it does not happen on a regular basis. Recommend your teen reach out to close friends and schedule a regular time to check-in.

• Drive around. Teens may not be able to have a lot of contact with friends, but they can drive by to see them. If your teen does not drive, give them a lift to help them connect with their peers. You can also make signs, create birthday parades or stop by and chat outside from a safe distance.

• Chalk it up. Teens can write nice messages to their friends with chalk on their sidewalks or driveways. 

• Backyard friends. Does your teen live close by to friends? Encourage them to have backyard parties where they can practice social distancing while still interacting with their friends.

• Let your teen negotiate. Negotiation is a great skill to teach adolescents. Social distancing is important, but can we combine allowing them to spend time with their friends while also getting them to practice being responsible? For example, allowing them to be in the front or backyard while wearing masks or being six feet apart. Have a trunk party where everyone stays in their own car and hangs out in the trunk. Teenagers likely will want to push it. Be willing to negotiate but also stay within your boundaries as a parent.

These times are challenging, but human beings are great adapters. Even though we are in a pandemic, it does not mean we stop growing or developing relationships. It just means the long-distance (six feet to be exact) relationship might be our new normal for awhile.

***

Dr. Kristen Galloway is a licensed psychologist and a board certified behavior analyst. She currently provides outpatient services to adolescents, young adults and their families. She is part of the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy team where she both facilitates and supervises DBT groups for outpatient adolescents and Boys Town youth. Dr. Galloway has been involved in a variety of forums — blogs, new interviews, conference presentations, outreach — to discuss issues such as social media, technology, culture, anxiety and self-care, that affect adolescence.

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