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Alcohol, teens and socializing: Parenting post-COVID-19

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written about the challenges facing teens and their parents during the COVID-19 restrictions. It’s been (and will continue to be) a tough time for everyone, particularly in regard to social isolation and as I’ve said previously we are in completely uncharted territory and still have little idea about what comes next. In a feature in The Lancet published a couple of weeks ago the author, Joyce Lee wrote “… not much is known about the long-term mental health effects of large-scale disease outbreaks on children and adolescents.”  She ended the piece by stating we needed to support young people through this period but there is also “a need to monitor young people’s mental health status over the long-term, and to study how prolonged school closures, strict social distancing measures, and the pandemic itself affect the wellbeing of children and adolescents.” 

What will the impact be on our young people and how will they respond once things return to some degree of normalcy? Some experts that I have spoken to have great concerns about the return of the #YOLO (You Only Live Once) phenomenon. For those of you who don’t know, YOLO is similar to ‘carpe diem’ (‘seize the day’) and is a call for people to live life to its fullest extent. #YOLO became well-known after Canadian rapper Drake used the term in songs in 2011 and in the next few years it became a staple of music and youth culture, being a subject of graffiti, tattoos and merchandise. It was also used to accompany a range of increasingly dangerous pranks and tricks culminating in Twitter suspending the use of the YOLO hashtag in 2014 due to its link to the promotion of high-risk activity.

After a period of isolation limiting their social interactions combined with an uncertain future – are teens even more likely to respond with a YOLO attitude when restrictions are rolled back? We know that adolescence is already a period of increased risk-taking, with their brains wired for them to push boundaries. They are not stupid – they are aware of dangers but they value the reward more than adults, put simply “they don’t downgrade the risk, they give more weight to the payoff”. Most importantly, this reward increases when around their peers, i.e., when they’re with their friends, they are likely to take even more risks. No-one is going to be surprised to see teens wanting to ‘blow off some steam’ when socialising restrictions are relaxed but the potential consequences of such behaviour are frightening …

We now have some parts of the country that are making changes to COVID-19 restrictions but there are still so so many ‘unknowns’ and what is ‘known’ is quite confusing. Earlier this week NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that from Friday, two adults (and their children if they have any) would be able to visit “anybody” in their homes for a social gathering. What does this mean for your teen – are they and their friends allowed to visit other friends? Other states have said that there can now be gatherings of up to 10 people, e.g., in WA a household of four people could have six guests visit. Once again, where do teens fit into this? It’s all very complicated and will prove very difficult for parents to explain and police when it comes to their teens.

What is clear is that there will continue to be huge challenges for parents ahead. The reality is that, no matter where you live around the country, there is little likelihood of teenage parties on Saturday nights being permitted in their pre-COVID-19 form for some time yet. We keep being told that the restrictions are going to be rolled back gradually but, as already said, we have no idea what that’s going to look like, over what time period. Regardless, it’s going to be a nightmare for parents who are going to have to try to enforce whatever rules the government puts out there. As such, parents need to be well-prepared for what lies ahead.

Sadly, there will undoubtedly be some parents who will be tempted to throw their hands in the air and say it’s all too hard and, as a result, forget the importance of rules and boundaries when it comes to parties, gatherings and alcohol. Some will say “Our teens have had it tough – let them have some fun”, while others will have had enough of a struggle during isolation and simply no longer have the strength to fight with their child as restrictions ease and, as a result, let them do whatever they want. More concerningly there will be great pressure from other parents to relax your rules and allow your teen to ‘have some well deserved fun’. Only you can make the decision about what you choose to do in this area – whatever you decide, you want your child to be safe. Be wary of listening to others when it comes to your child’s wellbeing. Whatever you choose to do, this is going to be a careful balancing act, acknowledging their need to be social but at the same time, maintain rules and boundaries to ensure their safety, particularly in a time when they are more likely to have a YOLO viewpoint about life and are more likely to want to ‘cut loose’ just a little more than usual.

As restrictions ease your teen is going to have increased opportunities to socialise with their peers but the reality is that they are still likely to be limited and be subject to government-imposed restrictions. If you want to reduce potential conflict and maintain a positive relationship with your teen, talk about the roll back now – don’t leave it until it starts happening – start the conversation today. Here are some simple things you can do to make the situation just a little easier:

  • discuss the roll back issue with your partner – find the time to sit down together and talk about thoughts of concerns either of you may have about the upcoming ease of restrictions. As always, in any parenting issue, try to establish a ‘united front’. This can be difficult and it may result in neither of you getting exactly what you want, but it is vital that you try to, at the very least, ‘meet in the middle’ and come to some agreement about how to deal with what is coming
  • talk with your teen – if restrictions are causing you concern, share your frustrations – ensure that they understand that they are not alone in how they feel about what is happening. Most importantly, acknowledge that you understand that the current rules are particularly difficult for young people due to their need to socialise with friends. Ask them about their thoughts on the easing of restrictions and parties/gatherings? Have they talked about it with friends? What would they like to see happen?
  • reiterate your rules/expectations around parties and alcohol – now is a great time to discuss these with your teen. Be sure to explain why your rules exist and how good behaviour will be rewarded, i.e., rules will change
  • decide on a plan – come up with a way you’ll deal with socialising in the coming months, e.g., family meeting at set time. You need to make it very clear that there are simply too many ‘unknowns’ to make decisions/promises at this time but an agreed plan of action provides them with an all-too-important ‘light at the end of the tunnel’
  • help them ‘look forward’ – although we keep seeing the tagline ‘this will end’, if your teen has been watching the news it may be extremely difficult for them to believe that a ‘normal’ life will ever return. They need to hear it from you. Try to shift their thinking away from what is being lost and focus on future plans and goals, e.g., plan a trip (preferably not overseas!) or the purchase of something special
  • most importantly, lead by example and stick to the rules yourself – positive role modelling is key! If the restrictions state 10 people, make sure your teen sees that you are sticking to that number. Thinking ‘one more won’t make a difference’ is going to lead to problems if your teen wants to bend the rules a little at a later date. This is one area that parents can’t use different rules and claim it to be ‘adult behaviour’ – these restrictions are in place for everyone

COVID-19 has set unprecedented challenges for families and even though things seem to be getting better it would appear that we still have a period of great uncertainty ahead. As our teens are permitted to socialise more freely as restrictions ease, parents need to be prepared. Waiting until the roll back occurs and trying to deal with it then is going to lead to potentially far more conflict between you and your teen. Start the conversation today and make sure that your child knows that you’re on their side. Of course you want them to start socializing with their friends again on a Saturday night, but you need to follow the restrictions that are currently in place (whatever they may look like) and you also want them to be safe. It’s going to involve some careful ‘juggling’ on your part!

Lee, J. (2020). Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30109-7.

Published: May 2020 

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