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COVID-19: What to Do When Your Teen Breaks Shelter-in-Place Rules


Some teens have heard and understood all the reasons they should follow COVID-19 shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines but refuse to follow them.

For some teens, the fact that every time they break the rules they endanger other people’s lives doesn’t matter.

They do not care.

Some will make jokes about it, gloat about it, and flaunt the fact they’re breaking the rules while their friends stay home.

What do you with a teen like that?

First, remind them of the legal consequences. In some areas, violating shelter-in-place, social distancing, or public curfew decrees can lead to:

  • Arrest
  • Fines of up to $1,000
  • Six months jail sentence
  • Various misdemeanor criminal charges

If this approach does not work, and your teenager refuses to follow the guidelines no matter what you say, don’t worry: there are some things you can do.

Steps to Take Right Away

The first thing you need to do is make everything about leaving difficult. Create obstacles to leaving based on how they travel, such as:

  • Taking car keys
  • Locking the bicycle
  • Deleting Uber or Lyft Accounts
  • Canceling Debit cards

Do not be afraid of setting hard limits on behavior. Make your expectations clear and the consequences unmistakable. Your teen may get angry, stamp their feet, and slam doors – but you need to stay the course. Additional consequences to unwanted behavior can include:

We say controlling access because right now it’s not a good idea to completely isolate your teenager from the outside world. They need contact with their peers and community, which means cutting off all contact is unwise. However, you can monitor and participate in all forms of communication they have with their friends. Whether they’re texting, talking, or video-calling, you can insert yourself into the conversation – that may be deterrent enough. With regards to home entertainment, you can take away television and narrow their free time options to books, listening to music, and drawing. As for laptops and tablets, you can restrict their use to educational purposes only.

Calling the Authorities

If your teenager’s behavior puts you, your family, or your neighbors at risk, don’t hesitate to call law enforcement, but that should only be as a last resort. Across the board, across the country, the police stance is to talk to people, educate them about why they need to stay home, and encourage them to comply with shelter-in-place orders. What they want is for everyone to stay home. Anything else increases the risk for everyone. You only have to think for a moment to realize a nonessential arrest is the last thing a police officer wants to make. And a disobedient teen is the last thing anyone wants crowding the judicial system right now: they have plenty of coronavirus related issues to deal with already.

As a rule, though, even now, if your teen places your family or community in immediate danger, don’t hesitate to call the authorities.

Long Term Solutions

Experts in adolescent behavioral health say the best way to handle persistent defiant or oppositional behavior is with evidence-based mental health treatment provided by certified, licensed professionals. The defiance you see now may be a short-term reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic – that’s possible. When the social restrictions pass, your teen may return to typical behavior – that’s also possible. But if it’s part of a pattern of behavior that’s built up over months, a mental health professional may be the best way for you and your teen to get to the root of the problem. To find out if your teen has a mental, emotional, or behavioral health disorder, you can schedule a clinical evaluation at a licensed, accredited mental health treatment center.

Mental health treatment centers are considered essential services within the broader health care system, which means that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are open and accepting patients. The highest quality treatment centers have implemented new practices that go above and beyond local, state, and national public health guidelines. They’re responsive, adaptive, and vigilant to the health and safety needs of their patients and staff.

For instance, an initial evaluation during the coronavirus pandemic will be via telehealth, rather than in-person. Admission staff should be able to answer any and all COVID-related questions you have. Also, adolescent treatment centers should define their COVID-19 policies on their website. If they don’t, then keep searching until you find one that does. In the event a clinical evaluation indicates your teen needs an intensive outpatient (IOP), partial hospitalization (PHP), or residential treatment program (RTC), the sooner you start treatment, the better off your teenager – and your entire family – will be.

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