covid family politics

How to respond to kids who are not following the stay-at-home order

Navigating COVID family politics is no walk in the park

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.


“What you gonna do, report on me to the government?”

Do we have a snitch line? If we had one, I’d be tempted.

Why? Because COVID family politics are making parenting adolescents look like a walk in the park. A tea party with the queen at Buckingham Palace. A date with Nicole Kidman. Really.

Because parents of teens and young adults are struggling with fear, pain and frustration. When they break COVID precaution protocols, we literally fear death. If they bring COVID home to us, we are at great risk. The pain is because we are incredulous — and sad — that they don’t seem to care enough about our well-being to limit their socializing. And the frustration is about communication.

A friend has been telling me since fall that his son at Queen’s University isn’t partying at all…. And that he only sees his girlfriend and his roommate. And that they also isolate. And that none of them see anybody else. Yup. And I’m the tooth fairy.

The high stakes today make family politics appallingly challenging. University students have a right to come home. Or do they? Young adults, the same. We know more young adults than ever are living at home. How do we talk to them about COVID? My experiences are that the younger gen experiences us as “interrogating” them when we inquire re their COVID precautions.

Do they care about the rules? Yes, but not as much as they do about seeing friends. The rules do not motivate them to batten down the hatches. Do they care that their socializing endangers others? Yes, but not enough to follow the rules. A recent New York Times article reported that “since the end of August, deaths from the coronavirus have doubled in counties with a large college population, compared with a 58 per cent increase in the rest of the nation. Few of the victims were college students, but rather older people and others living and working in the community.”

It gets worse. New U.S. research shows that young adults there are dying of COVID in far greater numbers than previously thought.

So what do we do? First seek to understand. If your relationship with your young ones is strong enough to have difficult conversations, start asking questions. (If it isn’t, learn how to strengthen it.)

Ask them questions. If your content and tone are 100 per cent non-judgy, and it’s your lucky day, they’ll tell you not what you want to hear, but their truth.

Which is that socializing is their oxygen. Life without constant connection with their friends is no life at all. Pre-COVID, we believed young people spent too much time online and not enough in person and that screens substituted for face-to-face connection. If we’d been correct, they’d be happy social Zoomers now.

But they’re not, and they wilt without frequent hang time with friends.

So how to manage the chasm between our need for safety and their need for socializing? If they don’t live in our house, we tolerate loneliness. It is unfortunately that simple. If they want to come home, we get to set our boundaries. And we must. In my house, this sounds like: “Yes, after you isolate for 14 days.” It sucks. More for us than for them. But it sucks less than getting COVID.

If they live in our house and refuse to stop socializing, I don’t know anything else to do but set major boundaries. Because the fight is not winnable, and losing it can have such tragic consequences. Sometimes parents have to make unpopular decisions. I would, with respect and love, tell my adolescent offspring that, while I understand their need to see their friends, it’s not safe for me, and I know they would never forgive themselves if they brought COVID home and there was a bad outcome. So I would tell them, we, the parents, are going to do what we must to stay safe.

Which is that they move to the basement if we live in a house. Or not enter common space unmasked if we’re in an apartment. We deliver meals to their threshold. And pick up used tableware there. No handy bathroom? Designate a COVID one. No shower? Take sponge baths. My house, my life, my decision.

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