Summer is typically a time of fun and relaxation for children and teens – offering a break from school and long days filled with swimming, cookouts, travel and time with friends. This summer, however, poses unique challenges and risks as cases of COVID-19 continue to spread and many families wonder how to navigate summer plans during a pandemic.
While the situation can be frustrating for many people, teenagers might find it especially hard to cope. Many teens are still processing emotions after their school year was cut short and many milestones canceled such as dances, athletic events and end-of-school-year celebrations. Additionally, freedom and autonomy are especially important during the teenage years – and after months of social distancing, teens are likely impatient to resume normal activities.
See tips from an infectious disease specialist and clinical psychologist to support your teen's physical and mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Stress the importance of daily precautions to prevent COVID-19.
While certain restrictions are lifting as states reopen, it's important to explain to your teenager that COVID-19 is still present and that taking simple daily precautions can help reduce its spread. Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, recommends stressing the importance of:
- Cleaning hands frequently
- Not touching your face with unwashed hands
- Wearing a facemask
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
- Practicing social distancing (also called physical distancing), which means keeping space between yourself and others outside your home
These precautions are especially important when running errands or out in public. Outlining clear steps to take will increase the chance that your teen follows safety precautions.
"While it is true that most serious COVID-19 disease is in adults and individuals with underlying health conditions, teens still can get infected and can get quite ill," says Dr. Kahn. "Further, even asymptomatically infected teens can spread virus, particularly in the home, so teens should be especially careful if there is someone in their home who may be at high risk for severe disease."
2. Reinforce the importance of social distancing.
Humans are social beings, and peer-to-peer connection is especially important for teenagers. However, physical distancing remains one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
If your teen asks to go out and socialize, remind them why it's important to practice physical distancing and suggest they connect virtually with friends when possible. If you decide to let your teenager start to see friends in person, encourage them to select a few close friends who have also taken steps to reduce risk of infection and to limit their social circle to those friends.
"COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person," explains Dr. Kahn. "This means the less people you encounter, the lower the chance you have of contracting the virus. A reasonable strategy would be to socialize with a small number of peers and to maintain that peer group as the summer goes along."
Depending on your child's age and ability to communicate, consider reaching out to the families of those friends to establish shared safety precautions. Make sure your teen is not attending large social gatherings, where keeping physical distance from others is not possible.
If your teen is still having trouble accepting social distancing guidelines, the best approach may be one that appeals to your child's empathy and highlights their social responsibility to protect others. Recent research has shown that teens are more likely to participate in physical distancing when they feel it is their social responsibility to do so and when their parents tell them to. However, teens who report having no reason to physically distance are significantly less likely to take precautions.
"Many teens want to disregard physical distancing because they view it as a loss of autonomy," says Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a Children's Health clinical psychologist and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "It can help to explain to your teen how they can contribute to society's attempt to overcome this pandemic rather than to focus on what they are losing. Explain how these steps can help protect those who need it most, such as grandparents or at-risk individuals."
3. Carefully consider typical summer activities.
Many families – and teens – are wondering what activities are safe to enjoy this summer. In general, any activity that involves exposure to other people carries risk, and the closer and longer you interact with others, the higher the risk.
"Whenever you have contact with other people, there's a risk of infection," says Dr. Kahn. "If you're going to venture out, the question is how do you reduce that risk as much as possible?"
Dr. Kahn offers a few tips when considering summer activities to help reduce risk:
- Consider if anyone in your home is at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. This may include people over 65 years old or those with certain underlying health conditions. If so, it's recommended you stay at home if possible.
- Opt for outdoor activities over indoor when possible. Consider visiting non-crowded parks or hosting small backyard gatherings like cookouts. Make sure to take steps to prevent heat exhaustion, such as staying hydrated and enjoying activities early in the morning or later in the evening.
- It is not believed that COVID-19 spreads easily through recreational water. However, if visiting a swimming pool or body of water, it's still important to minimize close contact with other people. Large pool parties or overcrowded areas would make it difficult to do this.
- If getting outside food to eat, curbside takeout can be a safer option. If choosing to eat at a restaurant, sit outside if possible, at tables spaced at least six feet apart. Check the restaurant's website ahead of time to see their COVID-19 safety guidelines.
- If planning travel, avoid areas with high spread and choose a destination that allows you to social distance. Vacations such as camping or renting a secluded cabin or house will generally be safer than visiting a big city or crowded attraction. See more tips for summer travel.
For any of these activities, always remember the importance of physical distancing, cleaning hands often and wearing facemasks. Keep hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes available for on-the-go use. Refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for more tips for staying safe during personal and social activities.
4. Continue to check-in with your teen and listen.
When COVID-19 first began to spread, you may have made an effort to talk to your teen about the virus and ask if they had any questions or concerns. As the months pass, it's important to keep these conversations going.
"Every teen faces different stressors," says Dr. Westers. "Some are grieved about missing milestones whereas others are worried how their friendships might be different after the pandemic. Will so-and-so still want to be my friend? Will it be awkward when I see them again? I encourage parents to ask their teens, ‘What has been the most stressful thing for you throughout the pandemic?' and then ask, ‘How can I support you?'"
Continue to check-in with your teen, listen to their concerns and validate any feelings of disappointment or frustration. While it's important for them to understand why certain precautions are important for their health, it's also normal to feel upset or disappointed about the situation. Reassure them that you're there to listen and that you care.
5. Encourage healthy habits and invest in time together.
Don't underestimate the helpfulness of practicing everyday healthy habits during this time, such as getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, maintaining regular physical activity and limiting screen time.
"Our physical health plays a critical role in our mental health," explains Dr. Westers. "Our mind and body are intricately connected and taking care of our body can help improve mood and promote mental health."
While summer is generally a time for a more relaxed schedule, encourage your teen to maintain a regular, healthy routine. Suggest picking up a new hobby or setting a goal for the summer. Set aside time to spend time together and use this time to teach your teen valuable life skills, such as changing the oil in the car, fixing the sink or managing a budget. If your teen is struggling with boredom, consider creating a list of fun activities together that also includes things that should be accomplished each day. When your teen is bored, have them randomly draw five of the activities out of a hat.
Step into your teenager's world and join them in their hobbies, even if they have different interests than you. If you are asking them to make sacrifices by staying home during the pandemic, then showing them that you are willing to sacrifice your interests by prioritizing theirs will increase the likelihood they will stay home and also deepen their relationship with you.
6. Model healthy behaviors and self-care.
One of the best ways to support your teenager is by making it a priority to take care of yourself, too. "An emotionally healthy parent typically makes for a better parent," says Dr. Westers. "Keep in mind that children and teens feed off our own anxieties and concerns."
Model healthy behaviors by labeling your own emotions and communicating how you handle stress and anxiety. If you're feeling anxious, consider a deep breathing exercise or mindfulness activity. Make sure to take breaks from media if needed and to make time for activities you enjoy.
Also know that if you recommend your teen take certain actions to stay healthy, but fail to take those actions yourself, you are likely to lose credibility and your teen might not consider your guidance as seriously. Show that you are taking daily precautions to prevent COVID-19. When your teen sees you being cautious and responsible by taking appropriate precautions, they are more likely to follow your lead.
Lastly, recognize that it's a stressful time for many reasons. Parenting a teenager is not an easy task – even when there is not a pandemic. Have patience with yourself and with your teen and look for ways to connect and show empathy even if you have difficult days. While this is an uncertain and challenging time, remember it will not last forever.
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.
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