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My 14-Year-Old Isn’t Social Distancing. What Should I Do?

Our Adolescence columnist, the psychologist Lisa Damour, responds to a reader’s question. The question has been edited and is being published with the consent of the person who submitted it.

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Q. My 14-year-old daughter (who knows that I check her phone) went on what was supposed to be a socially distanced walk with her pal. Afterward, I found a TikTok draft of their attempt at a “social distance” dance, which ended up in a pile of giggles and bumping into each other. I’m disappointed, and am wondering what I should do when she asks to see her friends again.

A. Whether or not you inform your daughter of what you found on her phone, you have a helpful takeaway to work with. You now know that it’s probably not realistic to expect unsupervised teenagers to stay at least six feet apart from their peers.

Needless to say, the current social distancing guidelines put parents and teenagers in a terrible position. Adolescents long to see their friends, and parents understandably want to grant that wish. Further, for teenagers, much of the fun of being with peers rests on not being with adults at the same time. So it is easy enough to understand why a parent might agree to let a teenager — especially a thoughtful and responsible one — spend time alone with friends on the condition that she or he maintains the physical distance that experts are strongly recommending.

But there are two factors that make sending adolescents out on their own a dicey proposition: the human need for physical contact, and what is known as hot cognition.

Let’s start with the basic biological need for touch, which both boosts mood and reduces stress. If you observe teenagers under normal conditions, you’ll see them satisfy this need by huddling, roughhousing and literally leaning on one another in gestures of platonic affection. Under the current emotionally taxing conditions, some teenagers may be accepting hugs from their parents, cuddling with their pets or wrestling with their siblings. But plenty of adolescents are hungry for touch, perhaps more than they are conscious of or, at any rate, willing to share with their parents.

A teenager who promises to forfeit physical closeness for a chance to be with much-missed friends may be making that promise earnestly. But we should bear in mind that adolescents can be prone to say — and truly mean — one thing when talking with adults, yet go on to do something else altogether when with their peers.

Here, hot cognition is to blame. Studies have shown that the quality of teenagers’ judgment can depend on whether they are analyzing a social situation at a distance, or are actually in the midst of it. When adolescents are thinking about a situation, but not in the heat of the moment — what psychologists refer to as cold cognition — they tend to reason like adults. But when teenagers are with their peers and wanting social acceptance — so-called hot cognition — their good judgment can be readily outmatched by their urge to go with the social flow, even if that flow involves behavior that they know to be problematic.

Given this, when your daughter next asks to see her friends, you might say, “I’ve thought it over, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll be able to stay at least six feet away from your friends, especially when you miss them so much.” You might also let her know that, even though she might plan to respect the social distancing guidelines, you don’t feel good about putting her in the likely situation of needing to rebuff a dear friend’s spontaneous and enthusiastic hug.

Do not expect this to be a fun conversation, especially if you decide to tell her that you know she has already broken your rules. Unfortunately, the conditions of Covid-19 offer parents and teenagers a limited number of unsatisfying options, but partial solutions may be better than no solution at all.

For example, if local restrictions and the health factors in your household permit, you might see if she wants to invite her friends for an outdoor “six feet a-party” at your home or while you tag along at a public location. They’ll need to be where you can see them, even if at a distance or through a window, so that your daughter can blame you for her good behavior while enjoying the company of her friends.

Further, you’ll decide whether it makes sense to raise the topic of her longing for physical contact, or if that’s better left unsaid. Either way, consider upping your hugs, casually rubbing her back as you pass by where she studies or attempting some other way to make physical contact that fits with the context of your relationship — maybe in the guise of something like doing each other’s hair or nails.

Beyond coming up with practical, albeit frustrating, compromises, we can offer empathy. This often goes farther that we think. You might say, “I know that this is not what you want, and I cannot tell you how much I wish things were different. We’ll do the best we can with the options we have, but I get it if you’re really unhappy about it.”

Given that it looks like we may be in for a long haul with Covid-19, we parents will need to get accustomed to coming up with creative solutions when possible and providing generous support and compassion for the painful situations that are beyond our control. It’s not as much as we want to offer, but it’s likely to be enough to get us through.

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.

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