As of this week, more than half of the states in the U.S. have implemented some form of stay-at-home policy, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. These orders urge all residents to stay home unless they need to leave for essential reasons (e.g. food, medicine, doctors). At the same time, state governments have closed schools, entertainment venues, and other non-essential businesses. Gatherings of more than a handful of people have been banned.
While most residents have been complying with these regulations, some are not. In spite of the mandates, some teenagers and young adults are still attending parties, trespassing onto closed beaches or parks, and defying social-distancing rules. So what do you do when it’s your child who’s violating the stay-at-home order?
As a parent, how do you respond?
Does Your Teen Understand The Impact?
First, you need to understand why your teenager is defying these mandates. Do they find complying with these regulations very difficult? Do they not understand how their actions endanger others? Or do they want to violate the rules because they’re naturally defiant? Or maybe a combination of the above?
If it’s because the regulations are hard, then that’s a bit easier to deal with. Start by validating the fact that social-distancing rules are, in fact, difficult. Empathize with your adolescent and explain that you’re feeling the strain, too. But for the sake of saving lives, you need to follow government policies – and so do they.
Next, sit down with the teen and explain the science behind these stay-at-home orders. For example, maybe your teen doesn’t understand why hanging out with friends or their significant other is dangerous, even if everyone feels fine. Maybe they don’t truly comprehend why they need to stay six feet away from others if the person’s not showing any obvious symptoms, like coughing or sneezing.
“When teens justify or rationalize their outings or defiance of other coronavirus-related protocols, usually it’s because their perceived risk is low,” says Lisa Faguet, LCSW, Clinical Program Director of Evolve Residential Treatment Center in Agoura Hills, CA. “It’s the parent’s job to explain how exactly their actions endanger others or even themselves.”
Defying Stay-at-Home Orders Increases Risk for Everyone
When explaining the consequences, parents should use evidence from reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO). They should use science to provide sound, fact-based arguments that paint as clear a picture as possible of the consequences of their actions.
For example, many teens do not understand the following essential facts:
- Coronavirus presents differently in each person. Some people can be infected with the virus and transmit it while never becoming seriously ill. Some infected people show no symptoms at all.
- There’s often a lag time after initial infection, before symptoms appear. For some it’s a couple of days. For some, it’s far longer. During this time, the infected person can transmit the virus.
- Just because they feel fine, themselves, doesn’t mean they’re not infected.
That third point is critical. If they’re carrying the virus and they go out for a nonessential reason – like to have fun and hang out with friends – they can transmit the virus to someone in a high-risk category who’s out for an essential need, like going to the doctor, getting medicine, or getting food. The possible consequences for the high-risk person include severe illness, hospitalization, and, in the worst-case scenario, death.
Who’s At Risk?
According to the CDC, specific groups of people might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, compared to other groups. These groups include people:
- Age 65 +
- Living in nursing homes
- Living in long-term care facilities
- With chronic lung disease
- With asthma
- Who have a serious heart condition
- With diabetes
- With liver disease
- With diabetes
- With severe obesity
- Who are immunocompromised, such as those who:
- Are undergoing cancer treatment
- Have had a bone marrow or organ transplant
- Live with poorly controlled HIV or AIDS
Make your teen read this list and tell them, yes, it includes their friend with asthma. And their friend with diabetes. It includes their friend whose grandma lives at home. And the neighbor they don’t know had an organ transplant five years ago. And the other neighbor who they don’t know recently finished a round of chemotherapy.
And countless others.
It’s About Protecting People
So even if your teenager nonchalantly says they don’t care about getting coronavirus, explain that them getting coronavirus is not the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is if they spread COVID-19 to an at-risk individual who could die from it. We’re fairly certain your teen does not want an at-risk individual to die because they wanted to go to the beach with their friends.
Hopefully, once you emphasize all the ways violating the guidelines can harm the community, their grandparents, parents, and other immune-suppressed individuals – including their friends – your teen will be more cautious about the pandemic.
Parents can also explain that these shelter-in-place orders are meant to slow the spread of coronavirus so that one day, soon, life can go back to normal. The more teens or other individuals violate the orders, the longer the orders will stay be in effect. Therefore, violating the rules undermines their endgame, which is a return to life-as-usual.
Help! My Teenager Doesn’t Care About the Rules
However, for certain teens, even this serious conversation won’t help.
For some teens, the fact that they are risking other people’s lives, their family members’ lives, and even their own life doesn’t faze them. They simply don’t care. In fact, some teens will even flaunt and gloat the fact that they are putting others at risk.
What do you do then?
First, warn your teen that several states are starting to enforce these mandates through citations or even arrests. For example, last week a Los Angeles surfer received a $1000 fine for not staying out of the ocean once the beach was closed. And in Tucker, Georgia, a violation of the stay-at-home order can result in six months in jail. Explain all this to your teen. Make sure they understand violating the orders can have legal and financial consequences. In some cases, it can even land them in jail.
Yet even this may not deter certain teens who don’t care about the ramifications of their actions— medical, legal, or otherwise. In these situations, Faguet advises parents to reach out for professional assistance, if they aren’t already doing so.
Mental Health Counseling for Behavioral Issues
“Parents should take these defiant behaviors seriously,” she says. “These teens are potentially hurting themselves and others.”
To determine whether your teen might be struggling with any of these behavioral issues, start by considering whether or not your teen has had a pattern of rule-breaking over recent months or years.
“Teens with a previous history of egregious or illegal behavior aren’t going to change their behavior suddenly just because there’s a pandemic. It’s unlikely that a new stay-at-home mandate will mean they’re now going to become compliant.”
Many teens who struggle with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), ADHD, and depression might struggle to follow the stay-a-home order either because they harbor hostility towards authority, struggle with making impulsive decisions, or are so depressed they have little regard for their safety and wellbeing.
Which is why high-quality mental health counseling is so essential for these teens.
What to Do Right Now If Your Teen Violates the Orders
In the meantime, there are certain band-aid solutions you can take to try and deal with your strong-willed teen.
First, establish obstacles. If your teen is leaving the house without permission, remove their access to transportation. Delete their Uber account. Take away their car keys. Temporarily lend out or lock up their bike.
“Parents need to be unafraid of instituting consequences for a teen’s challenging behavior,” Faguet says, “even if they know their teen will be extremely angry.”
If and when situations become desperate, and parents feel that they or their family members are at extreme risk, Faguet says they can consider calling local law enforcement as a last resort. Safety should always be the number-one priority. If parents ever feel like their teen is a danger to themselves or others, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek help from the authorities.
But the long-term solution in these situations, Faguet emphasizes, is always high-quality mental health treatment that can reach the root of your teen’s behavioral challenges. To figure out how you can help your teen develop skills to improve their behavior, request a clinical evaluation of your adolescent at a licensed, accredited mental health treatment center. During COVID-19, most Intensive Outpatient (IOP) or Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) for teens provide free clinical evaluations over video or telephone.
If you or a parent you know is struggling, Evolve offers free virtual support groups for parents of teens seeking practical guidance and emotional support. Choose from our parent support groups on Tuesdays at 7pm PST or Thursdays at 10am PST.