Our Adolescence columnist, the psychologist Lisa Damour, responds to a reader’s question. The question has been edited.
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Q. We are having an extremely difficult time with our 15-year-old grandson, who lives with us. He has finally found friends after struggling socially and wants to spend time with them, but they do not social distance or wear masks. Some of their families are not true believers in this pandemic. It is absolute chaos at our house because of him fighting to be able to do things. He says he is tired of Covid, because while he stays in, most of his friends do not and go about their lives like nothing has changed. He is angry and depressed and we are at a loss as to what to do.
A. You and your grandson are in a heartbreaking predicament for which there are no complete or satisfying solutions. I cannot tell you how much I wish this weren’t true. Above all, I want to acknowledge the painful reality of the circumstances you describe.
Even though there are no perfect remedies, it may still be possible to improve the situation at least a little bit. First, let’s note that you are contending with two distinct, albeit related, challenges. One is that the pandemic has uprooted your grandson’s budding social life. The other is that his perfectly warranted distress about falling out of touch with his new friends has ruptured his relationships at home. On the first front, you may be hard-pressed to offer your grandson more social opportunities than you already have. On the second front, however, there may be ways to repair your connection with your isolated teenager, who needs loving support now more than ever.
Empathy, empathy, empathy is the place to start. The situation in which he finds himself is miserable and not of his creation. It may be true that he is acting out and upsetting everyone around him, and that many other young people find themselves in similar straits, and that we are starting to catch glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. Try not to let these factors sap your sympathy for your grandson. The adjustments that we have been asking adolescents to make, both in how they conduct their social lives and how they learn, take almost all of the fun out of being a teenager and have been in place for nearly a year. No amount of compassion for this is too much.
Without any other agenda, deliver to your grandson the message that you are deeply sorry that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on his social life. Tenderly communicate that you grasp how painful it must be to know that his friends are getting together without him. Let him know that you cannot believe that the pandemic has gone on for so long (roughly one-tenth of the lifetime that he likely remembers) and that you understand that for teenagers in particular, the support of family cannot make up for losing touch with friends.
Compassion won’t alter the lousy circumstances, but it can still help to relieve his emotional suffering. Feeling alone with psychological pain is a lot worse than believing that your distress is seen and validated. So, do all you can to help your grandson know that you are entirely on his team.
There’s another way to look at this that may help you to move toward a better relationship with your grandson: Recognize that he may be turning an intractable, internal battle — between his desire to see his friends and his knowledge that their way of socializing isn’t safe — into an external battle between him and you.
It’s not at all uncommon for teenagers to turn vexing personal dilemmas into fractious family fights. Imagine a (post-pandemic) teenager who both wants to go to a concert and also feels unnerved by its sketchy venue. She might seek relief from being at odds with herself by recruiting her parents to take up one side of the battle. Picking this fight would be as simple as wholeheartedly lobbying to go to the concert while rolling her eyes when her folks pose reasonable safety questions.
Try to ease your grandson away from this instinctive approach by warmly and sympathetically articulating his dilemma. “It’s really frustrating,” you might say, “that your friends are doing things in a way that makes it impossible for you to safely see them. I get why you’re so upset.” This might open the door for him to welcome you as a strategic ally. “We’ll do whatever we can to help you see your friends in a safe way. Can you take bike rides together or go throw a ball around outside? We’re happy to take the blame if you want to pin the need to be outdoors and wear masks on us. Just let us know if there’s anything you can think of that we might do to make this work.”
It’s possible, of course, that your grandson won’t like your suggestion or want to test the strength of his friendships. If so, there is something else you can try. New research in the journal Child Development has found that teenagers are better able to bear pandemic conditions when their families support their autonomy. Are there choices you can offer your grandson that have not been left to him before? Perhaps you can give him more say over how or where he studies, what he does with his leisure time, who controls the remote or anything else you can bring to the negotiating table. Own the limits of what you are offering. Acknowledge that getting to pick the dinner menu won’t fix things with his friends. But having some new freedoms at home might just help him feel better enough.
Hopefully, your efforts will lighten your grandson’s mood. If he remains unhappy no matter what you try, make an appointment with his health provider to have him evaluated for depression which, in teenagers, often comes across more as irritability than sadness.
You and your grandson are not alone in feeling painted into a terrible corner by the pandemic. Even with so much beyond our control, let’s not overlook the ways, however incremental, that we can comfort and support our teenagers.
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.