Michigan students are going back to school in the midst of a global pandemic. Many schools are giving parents a choice between virtual learning or face-to-face classes. In communities without virtual options, parents are considering pulling their children out of school and homeschooling their teens rather than risking their family’s safety. But will doing that challenge teens development?

COVID-19 Forces Schools and Parents to Make Hard Choices for Teens

School administrators are receiving pressure from the CDC and the White House to open their doors and get students into the classroom as soon as possible. August 15 was the deadline for school districts to submit their plans for reopening in the 2020-2021 school year. Some districts plan to keep kids home and teach online only, at least for the first part of the year. Others will be putting safety protocols in place and bringing teachers and students face-to-face. Some districts are even creating hybrid systems – keeping teens home while bringing their younger siblings into the classroom.

Pre-K or College-Prep, Parents Should Always Put Safety First

While school boards are making tough district-level decisions, parents must decide what is best for their teens, children, and family. COVID-19 is a novel virus and there is much that pediatricians and doctors don’t know about the disease. While children seem less likely to suffer severe symptoms from the coronavirus than older adults, one report shows that more than 97,000 U.S. children tested positive for coronavirus in the last two weeks of July alone. Adolescence seems to be when the shift happens. Teens are less likely to spread the disease, but when they become infected their symptoms are also more like those experienced by adults.

With so much still unknown about children, teens, and the virus, parents may be justified in taking every precaution to protect their family – including opting out of face-to-face schooling. But could taking your teenager out of school hurt their development and maturity?

Teens are Programmed for Social Connection

Human beings are neurologically hardwired to value social connections. Biologically, many of the changes that prioritize community happen during puberty. Adolescents experience increased oxytocin receptivity, making socializing more pleasurable. Friendships, specifically, excite a teenage brain’s reward system, making teens more interested in spending time with their peers.

This makes sense within the overall development of teens’ relationships and emotional maturity. During adolescence, teens have two main tasks:

  • To develop an identity separate from their parents
  • To define and solidify their own personal identity

That identity includes everything from personal tastes and interests to sexual orientation. It also involves the development of relational skills such as empathy and compassion. Early adolescence is often the most narcissistic or self-centered period in a child’s development after age 2. It is through socialization with peers and mentors outside the family that teens learn how to overcome this narcissism and consider others, as well as themselves.

Social Distancing Isolation Threatens Teens’ Developmental Growth

Over the past several months, adults, teens, and even children have become skilled at social distancing to reduce transmission of COVID-19. But staying home and isolating teens from their peers can make it hard for them to complete the developmental tasks set before them. If your school is operating virtually or you choose to prioritize your teenager’s safety by homeschooling, it is important to also make space for their interpersonal development.

This isn’t as impossible as it sounds. Just like adults have found ways to maintain social connections while physically distancing, you can help your teenager maintain friendships and stay connected to relatives, mentors, and others that make up their web of social contacts. If your teen is homeschooling or attending virtual classes, be sure to:

  • Give them a private space (with a door) where they can communicate with their friends without parental supervision
  • Encourage them to reach out to mentors and other adults
  • Help coordinate and facilitate outdoor social meetups with friends and classmates
  • Prioritize activities that allow teens to interact, rather working in parallel

Protecting your family’s health doesn’t have to come at the cost of your teen’s relational development. By prioritizing their social connections as well as their academic needs, you can help your teens stay connected, combat isolation, and develop their personal identity, while staying safer at home.

David Stanislaw is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience. He helps children, teens and adults with relationships, development, and other psychological issues. Contact David Stanislaw to get help today.