If you’re parenting teenagers during a pandemic, you can’t avoid conflict; you can only hope to contain it.
And with uncertainty about when many students will return to classrooms, when sports and clubs and extracurriculars and social lives can return to a normal-ish clip, we can expect to be in containment mode for a while.
Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist, best-selling author and New York Times Adolescence columnist, sees an opportunity.
“Bottom line, conflict is high and will be for a while,” Damour told me. “Which gives us a lot of chances to think about how we’re doing conflict, and to do it well.”
In fact, Damour said, the coronavirus and its attendant lockdowns offer a unique opening for parents and teenagers to establish healthy conflict habits, because they provide a common enemy: the virus.
“Parents and teenagers are pitted against the same bad guy,” Damour said. “So the question becomes, ‘How do we partner together to come up with a solution? Instead of pitting ourselves against each other, how do we pit ourselves against this problem?‘”
It requires some finesse. But if it’s a muscle we learn to work, we can exercise it in nonpandemic times as well.
“It’s really important to remember that the teenager who wants to see their friends is not the bad guy,” she said. “The parent who wants to keep the kid close to home is not the bad guy. The bad guy is the virus that has put teenagers and parents in a totally impossible position. So if the parents and the teenager can see themselves on a team together, trying to contend with the horrendous position in which they’ve been put, that’s a better posture for having these disagreements.”
OK, but how?
Start by avoiding three familiar forms of unhealthy conflict, Damour said.
“Being a bulldozer — just running people over. Being a doormat — just letting yourself be run over. And being a doormat with spikes, which is basically passive-aggressive behavior: Using guilt as a weapon or playing the part of a victim or involving third parties even though it’s really a two-party disagreement.”
Every style is incredibly common.
“They’re very natural to us and everybody uses them,” Damour said. “But if you can think about them and be conscious of them, you can usually just daydream about using them but not actually use them.”
Instead, Damour said, parents and kids should try adopting and repeating each other’s opposing positions.
“There’s something really powerful if the parent has to voice the kid’s opinion and even has to say, ‘Did I get it right or did I miss something?‘” Damour said. “And the kid is like, ‘Yeah but you left out the part about this, and then the parent has to say, ‘OK, so what you’re saying is people are hanging out and you feel by the time you get to see them again they’re not going to be your friends anymore because so much has happened that you missed.‘ And the kid gets to be like, ‘Yes.’
“It cultivates empathy to have to say the other person’s perspective in your own words,” Damour said. “And then it’s the same on the other side, for the kid to be able to say, ‘What I hear you saying is you’re afraid we’re going to kill Grandma.’ And the parent gets to be like, ‘Yeah!‘”
It also helps to tone down our expectations about constant togetherness.
“It’s really important that we normalize the idea that we all need time apart,” Damour said, “and that we don’t make it seem like anyone’s being disloyal or rejecting us if they don’t want to be with the family all the time.”
Damour’s 16-year-old daughter introduced family sabbaticals.
“On a Friday evening she said, ‘I think tomorrow we should all take a sabbatical from one another,‘” Damour said. “We all agreed we would have the day apart, in the house. And we were all quite a bit happier to spend the day together the next day.”
Damour knows another family who instituted occasional YOYO (You’re On Your Own) dinners.
“People just feed themselves when they feel like it,” Damour said. “It’s an acknowledgement that we do not need to have dinner together every night.”
Pre-pandemic, football practice and piano lessons and parent-teacher conferences may have naturally introduced YOYO dinners. Mid-pandemic, families can introduce them on their own schedule.
“The idea is that you neutralize needing time apart,” Damour said. “It’s not about, ‘I can’t stand you guys. Go away.‘”
Damour has written about adolescence with grace and compassion for years, and her work during this pandemic has been a balm. In March, when we were just coming to grips with all that would be sacrificed to this virus, she wrote the following in her New York Times column:
“There’s a lot we still don’t know about how the spring will unfold for our teenagers, but there are some truths about adolescents that can help us through this difficult time: They welcome empathy, they are resilient and adaptable, and they appreciate — and tend to live up to — high expectations.”
Spring extended into summer, and summer is likely to stretch into fall, but I’m still looking to those words, above all else, as my North Star.
(Contact Heidi Stevens at [email protected], or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)
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