Teenagers at a drive-in movie theater in Warwick, New York. by the Forward

We asked the experts: can teens see friends in a summer without camp?

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Teenage summers are transformative times. Between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, adolescents take on new roles at camp, become temporary members of the workforce, and enjoy evening cruises down back roads. They cement friendships, escape parents’ watchful eyes, and break the rules — just a little.

“This is traditionally a time of year for boundary pushing,” said Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, a Seattle-based parenting coach, and that’s important for adolescent development. But it’s also a summer like no other, when breaking the rules — or even hanging out at the pool — can bring teenagers in contact with coronavirus.

“No one wants to be sitting at the bedside with their child because of a bad decision,” said Donna Hallas, PhD, director of the pediatric nurse practitioner program at NYU’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing.

So as stay-at-home orders gradually relax and teenagers face long months of unscheduled time, how can they safely socialize with friends? And how can parents balance physical health and emotional needs? We spoke to Hallas and Natkin about creating a plan for a safe summer. Here’s what they had to say.

My teenager wants to see friends. How should I evaluate risk?

Guidelines are different in every state, so check to see what’s allowed in your area. But Hallas said parents should be even more cautious than guidelines suggest. Since few children and teenagers have been tested for coronavirus, little is known about how likely they are to contract or transmit it. Some evidence suggests that children can have the virus far longer than adults without knowing it/

Moreover, guidelines are often written with adults in mind, Hallas pointed out. New Jersey currently allows groups of 25 to gather outdoors, but it’s a lot easier to enforce social distancing among 25 adults than the same number of restless teeangers whose brains are hard-wired to take risks. You may need to adapt guidelines to prevent your teen from ending up in a situation where it’s too difficult to be safe.

Of course, your rules will ultimately depend on your family’s particular risks. If you’re in frequent contact with elderly relatives, or if a member of the family has an underlying condition, there may be no alternative to a summer of severely curtailed freedoms. But for families that are healthy, the mental benefits of careful socializing may outweigh the risks.

So how many people can my teenager socialize with?

Don’t institute across-the-board rules on how many people your teenager can see at once. Instead, evaluate proposed activities on a case-by-case basis. A gathering in the front yard, where there’s space to distance and a parent on hand to ensure rules are followed, is comparatively low-risk and could accommodate more attendees. On the other hand, an unsupervised walk involves logistical complexities and plenty of temptation to bend the rules. In that case, Hallas suggested, a smaller group — think two or three people, max — is best.

What kinds of activities are safest?

Cases of outdoor transmission are comparatively rare, so encourage your teenagers to see friends outside. Hallas suggested tweaking traditional sports to fit social distancing mandates: teens can play two-a-side soccer if they don’t skirmish over the ball, or shoot hoops with their own basketball. If teens must touch a shared object, like a tennis ball, they should wear gloves while doing so.

Exercise helps teens stay healthy while staying home, but you can also recreate indoor activities for the era of coronavirus. If you have the projector (or the supplies to improvise one), you can have a socially-distanced movie night in the backyard. Picnics are all right, as long as everyone brings their own food, drinks, and cutlery. Anything that takes place in a yard has the advantage of allowing for stealthy parent supervision.

If your teenager can drive, they’re probably itching to cruise around with friends. But Hallas said it’s unsafe for even two or three friends to drive together, since climate control and restricted air flow in cars create perfect circumstances for transmission. Think about how your teen can get to or from the proposed activity without sharing car space with someone outside the household.

What precautions can my teenager take while socializing?

Masks are essential, Hallas said. Goggles and face shields are helpful as well (although, for teenagers, probably a harder sell). Even if they’re not planning on touching any shared objects, socializing teens should have gloves on hand in case they’re needed.

If your teen is leaving the house, pack the supplies they’ll need to minimize interaction with others. Hand sanitizer is a must, as are wipes: if your teen wants to sit on a park bench or other surface, they should wipe it down first. Even better, bring blankets, one per person, and sit on the grass. Teens should bring more water than they think they need in order to avoid drinking from a public fountain or a friend’s bottle.

How do I get my teeanger to take this seriously?

Before summer starts, parents should initiate a family-wide discussion about safety while socializing, said Natkin. Give advance notice and make sure teens know their input matters. If they feel included in the decision-making process, they’re more likely to abide by the rules. “I say you can be the boss until you kids hit their teens but then you have to figure out how to be a consultant,” Natkin said.

Start the conversation by reviewing state and local guidelines together, as kids are more likely to accept external authority than their parents’ directives. Then, ask kids about their concerns. Which activities are most important to them this summer, and which can they forego? They may have to live without impromptu trips to the beach, but you can help them make soccer drills or ice cream nights with friends happen.

Once you’ve set your family’s boundaries together, prepare your teen to evaluate risk in the moment. Not every activity will go according to plan, and they should be able to make some decisions without you present. Talk through different scenarios: what happens if they’re offered a bowl of ice cream from another kitchen? What if a gathering of three people turns into a party of ten? Decide which issues your teen can resolve on their own, and which require a call home.

What do I do if my teenager breaks the rules?

Since rule-breaking is especially dangerous right now, it’s especially likely to get parents riled up But, Natkin said, yelling at a disobedient teenager is likely to prompt repeat offenses, not forestall them.

If you find out that your teen is in the pool with ten friends instead of on a walk with two, don’t panic. Focus on getting them home, and talk about the incident when everyone is calm — even if that means waiting until the next day. When you do have that conversation, talk through what went wrong and how you can prevent it from happening again.

You may be really mad that your teen broke the rules. But, Natkin said, an emphasis on obedience “leaves a kid not knowing what to do when no one tells them.” You and your kid are better off discussing how they can make smart decisions on their own.

Right now, Natkin said, imposing big punishments is a bad idea. Taking away a teen’s phone deprives them of a major source of social contact, and cutting off screen time may make your own life miserable. But you can let natural consequences take effect. Were you planning on seeing family members or taking a day trip to the beach? If your teen has potentially exposed themself to coronavirus, it’s too risky for them to go — and that’s that.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

Can teens see friends in a summer without camp?

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