Our adolescence columnist, psychologist Lisa Damour, answers a reader’s question. The question has been processed.
[To submit a question, email AskDrDamour@nytimes.com.]
Q. We have a very difficult time with our 15 year old grandson who lives with us. He finally made friends after fighting socially and wanting to hang out with them, but they don’t have social distance and don’t wear masks. Some of their families don’t really believe in this pandemic. It’s an absolute mess in our house because he’s struggling to be able to do things. He says he’s tired of Covid because while he stays inside most of his friends don’t and go about their lives like nothing has changed. He’s angry and depressed and we don’t know what to do.
A. You and your grandson find yourself in a heartbreaking situation for which there are no complete or satisfactory solutions. I can’t tell you how much I wish it wasn’t true. First of all, I want to acknowledge the painful reality of the circumstances you described.
Even if there are no perfect remedies, the situation can possibly be improved at least a little. First, note that you face two different, albeit related, challenges. One of them is that the pandemic has uprooted your grandson’s thriving social life. The other is that his perfectly legitimate need to stop being in touch with his new friends disrupted his relationships at home. On the first hand, you may find it difficult to give your grandson more social opportunities than you already have. On the second side, however, there may be ways to reconnect with your isolated teen who is now more in need of loving support than ever.
Empathy, empathy, empathy is the starting point. The situation he is in is miserable and not of his creation. It may be true that he is playing off and upset everyone around him and that many other young people are in a similar situation and that we are beginning to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. Try not to let these factors interfere with your compassion for your grandson. The adjustments we’ve asked teens to make, both in the way they lead their social lives and in terms of learning, are almost all the fun for the teen and have been in place for almost a year. No compassion for that is too much.
Without any further agenda, convey the message to your grandson that you are very sorry that the pandemic has devastated his social life. Affectionately communicate that you understand how painful it must be to know that your friends will get together without him. Let him know that you cannot believe the pandemic has lasted this long (roughly a tenth of the life he is likely to remember) and that you understand that family support, especially for teenagers, cannot make up for the loss of contact Friends.
Compassion won’t change the dire circumstances, but it can still help alleviate your emotional suffering. Feeling alone with mental pain is far worse than believing that your plight is seen and confirmed. So do everything you can to show your grandson that you are completely on his team.
Jan. 29, 2021, 6:05 p.m. ET
There’s another point of view that can help you build a better relationship with your grandson: Realize that he may be engaged in a persistent internal battle – between wanting to see his friends and knowing that their way of connecting to tie, does not exist. t sure – into an external fight between him and you.
It is by no means uncommon for teenagers to turn annoying personal dilemmas into fragile family struggles. Imagine a (post-pandemic) teenager who both wants to go to a concert and is also irritated by his sketchy venue. She might seek relief in recruiting her parents to take up one side of the battle. Choosing this fight would be as simple as full lobbying to go to the concert while rolling her eyes when her people ask reasonable safety questions.
Try to free your grandson from this instinctive approach by articulating his dilemma warmly and compassionately. “It’s really frustrating,” you might say, “that your friends do things in a way that you can’t see for sure. I understand why you are so upset. “This could open the door for him to welcome you as a strategic ally.” We will do everything we can to help you see your friends in a safe manner. Can you go bike rides together or throw a ball outside? We’ll be happy to take care of that Guilt if you want to nail down the need to be outdoors and wear masks. Just let us know if you can think of anything we could do to make this work. “
It is of course possible that your grandson does not like your proposal or wants to test the strength of his friendships. If so, there is still something else you can try. New research in the journal Child Development has shown that adolescents can endure pandemic conditions better when their families support their autonomy. Are there any options you can offer your grandson that were not previously given to him? Maybe you can tell him more about how or where he studies, what he does in his spare time, who controls the remote control or what else you can bring to the negotiating table. Own the limits of what you can offer. Acknowledge that choosing the dinner menu does not resolve problems with his friends. But having new freedoms at home might 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 doctor to have him checked for depression, which teenagers often experience as irritability rather than sadness.
You and your grandson don’t feel like you have been left alone in a terrible corner by the pandemic. Even with so much of our control being beyond our control, we shouldn’t overlook how incrementally we can comfort and support our teenagers.
This column does not constitute medical advice and does not replace professional psychological advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have any concerns about your child’s well-being, talk to a doctor or mental health professional.