A teenager’s natural instinct is to reject much of their parental authority and make their friends their biggest priority. They are at a stage of development where they want to figure out their own values, ideals, and they want to individuate from their parents. It’s the age of purple hair and a desire for tattoos.

So it’s not surprising to see the pictures of spring breakers shoulder-to-shoulder, having fun in Daytona, without a care about social distancing. For most teenagers, this is the first time they have been asked to make real sacrifices for people they have not met before. They have missed the wars most of us have experienced as well as 9/11.

Teens are inherently less risk-averse than their parents. Jess Shatkin, another child psychiatrist and colleague of mine, writes in his book Born to Be Wild that in adolescence, the dopamine hits we get from rewards — like socialization with friends — make us more likely to take risks as a teenager than as an adult. The dopamine in our brain increases during adolescence and we often weigh the benefits more than the consequences.

The dopamine activity occurs in the prefrontal cortex, which is the command center of the brain. It is important for impulse control and regulating emotions. It is more efficient in adulthood, as we can understand and comprehend more, care more about the news, and defer immediately in exchange for deferred rewards.

So it makes it more difficult for a teenager to really understand why they are being asked to quarantine. They want a dopamine rush from social interaction. Being asked to stay home and play board games with their parents is just SO LAME. “Why can’t I… when all my FRIENDS are doing it?!”

The answer is: You can’t just lay down the law. Teenagerdom is a democracy, not a dictatorship. I would recommend that you compromise. It might be about giving them more freedom and space to do what they want when they are home. Perhaps not getting mad if they miss dinner, or if they spend hours gaming. Rather, use it as a negotiating chip to keep them in the house and safe. Another option might be to allow them to see friends, but 6 feet apart and outside, such as getting creative about picnics where everyone stays on their own blankets. If you just lay down the law, it might cause your teen to get subversive and sneak out, or engage in other risky behaviors.  

Another issue for many teenagers is they are missing out on many things. Some are even missing their graduations and proms. This is a real loss for them. We all must make sacrifices right now for the greater good, but a lot of teenagers are inherently egocentric, so this might feel like the end of the world to them. Here, I would recommend you give them time to grieve with all the stages of grief of their loss which is a really big deal.  

Allow them to go through all five stages: denial, anger, bargaining,  depression, and acceptance (Elisabeth Kubler- Ross, M.D., Death & Dying). Don’t minimize it by saying things like, “We are all suffering right now,” or, “What about the people who are actually dying?”

Most teens can’t intellectualize that way, and you will just push your teenager away and they won’t come to you anymore. Just sit with them, allow them to vent, and offer your sympathy. It might not seem important to you, but it should because it is important to your teen.

When it comes to your teen and their quarantine, remember to compromise. And, don’t forget to bring a box of Kleenex to wipe their tears when they realize all they are missing.

Originally published in The Purist Online.


  • Dr. Lea Lis


    Lea Lis, MD, is “The Shameless Psychiatrist." She is a double board certified Adult and Child psychiatrist, a clinical professor at NYU. She has a bustling practice in the Hamptons where she sees patients from all family arrangements. Her book “No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-confidence, and Healthy Relationships" helps people pass down intergenerational wisdom, instead of trauma, by using modern psychotherapy techniques which she perfected throughout her many years of experience. She is an expert in the field of psychology, and hopes to change the way we speak about sex. Widespread social changes, along with a sex-saturated media and ongoing debates about the meaning of gender and sexuality,  generate new challenges for parents of all kinds. Lis helps parents, children, and adolescents face these challenges and develop healthy, sex-positive attitudes and practices. During her training and residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York and New York University, as well as in her private psychiatric practice, she has developed expertise in working with modern families of all types. In No Shame, Dr. Lis covers the many issues that may arise as children grow: how to help young children understand personal physical boundaries; the importance of opposite-sex role models in children’s lives, what to tell―and not tell―your kids about your own sexual history; and the role of rituals to mark a girl’s first period or a boy’s passage into manhood. Dr. Lis gives practical pointers on how to help your kids when their relationships run into trouble, how to encourage them to have good relationships with themselves, and how to teach them to flirt and to deal with rejection. No Shame shows how talking to your kids about sex and encouraging them to keep a dialogue open with you will help them to have positive, joy-filled emotional and sexual relationships as they grow up. This may not always be comfortable, but as Dr. Lis shows throughout this book, talking about sex, love and relationships in a knowledgeable way is essential. Find out more about Dr. Lea Lis and sign up for her newsletter at www.shamelesspsychiatrist.com.