Should My Teen Socialize With Unvaccinated Friends?
A mom writes in from the deep South with concerns about whether to allow her daughter to socialize with a good friend who is unvaccinated. Dr. Lisa discusses the importance of framing the issue around the child’s safety while allowing the kid to guide the conversation. Reena asks how parents can weigh the mental health risks of not being socially active against the possibility of catching Covid. Dr. Lisa explains how parents can help their children assess these risks. Should the mom reach out to the other family? Dr. Lisa talks about when a parent should make that call.
September 28, 2021 | 22 min
Transcript | Should My Teen Socialize With Unvaccinated Friends?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 49: Should my Teen Socialize with Unvaccinated Friends?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: It’s starting to feel a little bit more like fall now. We are transitioning from summer.
LISA: Pumpkin spice season, as we call it in Ohio.
REENA: Totally. Pumpkin spice season already. You know we have this annual pumpkin carnival and we were able to do it this year, which is so exciting, and I’m also hopeful that we’ll get vaccines for kids under 12 by the end of the year, waiting on that. We got a question in from a listener who was talking about socializing with unvaccinated friends and what to do. It’s such a good letter. ‘Dear Dr. Lisa, I’ve listened to almost all of your shows and look forward to them every single week. I’m dealing with a circumstance which I know many other parents are probably grappling with. What to do when a teen’s close friend is not vaccinated. My daughter’s almost 13. She’s an only child but very, very extroverted, gregarious and loves people, and this last year with remote schooling has been very difficult for her. We’ve kept her isolated for the first part of the pandemic as my husband is in a high risk category and we did not want to expose further risk. As soon as she was permitted, we vaccinated her, and resumed a pretty normal life thereafter with visits with her best friend who she adores. Her friend has not been vaccinated although she is eligible. Her parents have both been vaccinated, so we’re extremely puzzled why she is not. We live in the deep south where there is a high community infection rate. The friendship has somewhat cooled off as I have not invited her to our house. I am concerned that this will really impact my child who has few friends in the first place. I am terrified about getting COVID, but also very concerned at the loss of the friendship. Our daughter fully comprehends the situation, but I think emotionally it is very tough on her. Any direction or advice would be so welcome.’ You know it’s so hard because I found in that age group it’s so hard to find friends that you can really connect with.
LISA: I know. I mean this letter just, ah, you just feel this so intensely for all parties. You know you feel this for the parent, you feel this for the kid, you know, about to be 13, you know, if you’ve got a good buddy at 13 that’s a really big deal. It just feels like version number 743 of, you know, horrible positions in which the pandemic puts families. You know it’s just so painful to think through these particular kinds of scenarios.
REENA: So, what is the mom to do right now? What’s important? How do you drill down on this issue?
LISA: Well the mom has at her disposal an extraordinary asset, which is incredible empathy for her kid, and, you know, not all parents are able to summon as much empathy as this mom can, and this letter just, you know, it just drips with her awareness of how hard this is for her kid, how special this friendship is, how delicate the position they’re in happens to be, and if the mom didn’t have that, that’s where we would start. You know we would be thinking about how can she find it. Okay she’s got it. So, then the question becomes, how can she put that empathy to work? And so the first thing I would have her do, and she’s clearly already gotten well down this road, is to really think with her daughter about what this is like, and how this feels, and the surgical precision the mom’s going to need to do this is to ask those questions and have that conversation in a way that doesn’t make the kid feel like she’s doing something wrong or she’s in trouble or she can’t enjoy the friendship, and that’s the very delicate line the mom’s going to have to walk.
REENA: So, how did you start that conversation if your child has been vaccinated friends?
LISA: So, I think what we do it might be something along the lines of saying, you know, let’s say this the friend’s name is Harriet. I always like coming up with names that are clearly no longer in circulation so clearly I’m not talking about any kid I know, right?
REENA: That would be a name not in circulation.
LISA: Not in circulation. Okay so let’s say this friend’s name is Harriet. So says her daughter, you know, we love Harriet, and we know you love Harriet. This vaccination thing, it’s kind of weird. You know her folks are vaccinated, she’s not. Like what do you think about that? You know something like that that’s very clearly like, I’m just feeling this out. I’m trying to get you’re sitting with this, and then see what the kid says back, and if the kid says, yeah it’s super weird and everybody’s kind of weirded out by it, and I am starting to accomplish a polite distance from her because I just really want to be safe. Okay, well then that’s one conversation, or the kid’s done most of the work. If a kid goes, yeah but she’s my close friend and, you know, it’s so tricky and it’s so hard and don’t tell me I can’t see her. You know that’s another conversation. My sense from the letter is you’re going to get kind of a mix of those. Of the kid saying, I know like I love her and I want to hang out with her, but I don’t really know what to do, or I don’t want to be unsafe, or I don’t want to get you guys sick, and so then what the outcome is now the parent and the kiddo are facing this conflict together. You know they are a team trying to figure out how to manage this huge dilemma of a dear friend who doesn’t feel like an altogether safe choice for hanging out.
REENA: You know it’s so interesting though. I like how you sometimes say when a parent is struggling, you’ve mentioned this before, toss a question to them. Don’t go in there charging saying, no, no, no you can’t do this. No, no, no. Throw out an open ended question, see how they respond, but how do you come up with a solution after you hear what they’ve said?
LISA: So, I feel like we could actually headline this entire season, like one theme that’s coming up a lot of safety, and it’s interesting it’s coming up and drinking, it’s coming up around college, it’s coming up around all sorts of stuff, and I will say, Reena, I think the reason for me that such a central issue is, you know, having cared for a lot of kids through a lot of things, if you’re kid’s not safe nothing else matters. You know so it really does have that kind of primacy in parenting, and then also safety is neutral. You know it’s not a good or a bad, it’s just, you know, you’ve got to be safe. You know it’s good, but it’s not like people have opinions about it, like safe is safe.
LISA: But of course around the vaccine, there’s not consensus around what’s safe, but in this family there is. So, I think the way a parent might start in this is to say, all right well the number one priority is safety. Your safety, our family’s safety. So, talk to me about when you’re hanging out with Harriet, does it feel safe? And start there, and your kid might say, actually it does because if we’re indoors, we’re both wearing masks and we’re at a decent distance from each other. If we’re outdoors we only take our masks off when we’re at a decent distance from each other. She’s really good about respecting space. I’m really good about minding space. I feel really good about the mask I’m wearing. If your kid happens to be a kid who can really walk you through, again, you know, in a way that you trust is not just happening in the conversation but it’s happening also when the kid’s away from you, how they are maintaining safety, then the parent might make the assessment of, all right you keep hanging out with it Harriet. The benefit to your mental health seems like it outweighs any what sounds like a minimal risk to your physical health, so you let me know if anything changes. So, that would be one way. Now, what if you don’t get such a reassuring thing? So, here I think we go back to the principle of like, well then blame us. If you want to hang out with her and she gets too close or she doesn’t wear her mask and you still want to hang out with Harriet, well then let us be the bad guys in that scenario. Either requiring that you both wear masks or requiring that you only hang out outside, or requiring that you hang out outside, you know, at a good distance. Let’s make up any rules they will help you to feel better and help us to feel better but you just blame us for the rule so it doesn’t have to be weird between you and Harriet.
REENA: Do you find that teens take you up on that? That that’s something they actually do?
LISA: It depends on the kid. I think it really depends on the kid. And I don’t know, there’s something about this letter the gives me a feel like this mom gets this kid, this kid gets this mom. You know there’s a closeness. But I think that would have to factor into the calculations, right? You know how much you feel like your kid’s got good impulse control, right? So it may even be it’s not even like the kid’s being, you know, kind of difficult about it, that, you know, they just may be really impulsive, and so they may be a really super wonderful kid who means to do the right thing, but you also know your kid just like, yeah they do the right thing until they’re not thinking about it anymore and then it’s out of their minds and suddenly they’re like in a dog pile on the floor and no masks with a kid who’s unvaccinated. So, I think there’s a lot of factors that you might want to bring in, and so say you’ve got an impulsive kid. So, then it may be where the mom’s like, okay, well it’s got to be over here. It’s got to be in our backyard where I can see you, and the piece about them being in the south, you know, on the one hand the rates are very high, on the other hand the weather will be agreeable for awhile longer, you know, so that’s, you know, a plus in their scenario.
REENA: Looking at the mental health component and the risk. I think we’re at the stage where so many people are looking at the mental health component versus the risk, right? Because there’s no such thing as zero percent risk ability at this point, right?
REENA: So when parents are weighing both, the mental health component, which clearly in this letter this mom gets for her child, versus the risk of catching COVID, do you have any advice on that for parents?
LISA: Yeah. I mean I think this is a really tough part of the pandemic because what is becoming clearer, at least to me, I’d be interested if this is your reading of the news too, is COVID’s here to stay.
LISA: This is part of our lives, and so we need to get to a place where we feel like we can tolerate that risk the comes with COVID, and, you know, everyone’s going to get there in a different way or not get there, but it will come down to some very individual things, and it’s funny actually yesterday I had my younger daughter at her annual pediatric visit, and my younger daughter’s not vaccinated, and we were sitting with her pediatrician, and my younger daughter happens to be in a school district where masks are mandated, and what said in front of our pediatrician, and the pediatrician nodded and agreed and said, yep that’s right. I said, you know, she wears a mask. Her friends are masked. We are reassured her, even if she gets COVID, the overwhelming likelihood, and the pediatrician finished the line, she’ll feel crummy for a day or two if she even knows that she’s got it, and that, you know, compared to all the other risks we take in life it’s just one of many. You know we drove a car here, and that comes with risks too. And our pediatrician was like, yep, exactly. And, so where I am, and this is based on my kid having no underlying health issues, no one in my family having underlying health issues, right? So there’s all these variables that are very, very family dependent, it’s really better for my kids to be at school with peers, out seeing friends, in those routines. We have seen the mental health data on this. It is disastrous for kids to not be in school, and given that I happen to be in a district where all of the mitigation efforts are in place that can be in place, it’s a calculated risk, but it’s really hard to stomach that, but I think that’s where each individual family needs to get knowing their particular risk profile and risk tolerance.
REENA: What do you do, I mean because I think we’re both fortunate to sort of live in communities where I think, you know, people are masking up, they’re taking precautions, but as this pandemic grows, I am seeing some people want to now unmask in the classroom regardless of Delta, you know, opinions change over the course. How do you bridge that divide with your child if the people they hang out with might have totally different rules at this point in the pandemic?
LISA: It’s so tough, right? It’s so tough, and I think part of it is people just tired.
LISA: You know, tired of dealing with it, and so I get it. I don’t agree with it, personally, but I get it where people are like, I just don’t want to do this anymore. Yeah I get it.
REENA: Should this parent reach out to the other mom and have a conversation? When’s the point that you need to talk to a parent and have a conversation? Because people are sick of it, and you never know how conservative or tolerant or where they fall with masks, and even vaccinations, right?
LISA: Yeah. My very strong gut, and I have to unpack where this strong gut is coming from, is that this is not a phone call worth making.
REENA: Really, why do you say that? They’re good friends, right?
LISA: The kids are good friends, right? And so there may even be a long history with the other parent. When it comes to our own children’s health choices, unless the law says otherwise, people do get to make the call, and it just so rarely goes well to have another parent weigh in on something as personal as health choices you’re making for your child, especially if it comes completely unsolicited, right? It’d be one thing if Harriet’s mom called and said, you know we’re going back and forth about the vaccine, what do you think? You know that’s one conversations.
LISA: But to call Harriet’s folks and be like, you know, I’m wondering, or can you help me understand given that you’re vaccinated? I just feel like that is going to blow up, and it’s either going to blow up on the phone or it’s going to just go badly, and this is an interesting thing in parenting because it happens a lot, especially as kids become teenagers, that a parent has information or questions about another kid’s behavior around on their safety and it’s a tough one because it it very rarely goes well to make an end run around the kids and have it be a phone call parent to parent, but it does raise, now that you mention it, one more possibility for the writer of the letter and her own kid, which is it’s an okay conversation maybe for the kids to have, and so it might be worth is a parent saying to the daughter, what’s your sense about why Harriet’s not vaccinated? You know just ask your own kid, like, I don’t get it. What do you know about it? And see if there’s any room in there to work because maybe the girl has information, or maybe the girl says, yeah she’s really scared of needles, or maybe there’s something there, there’s more information to work with that can be obtained without getting on the horn with Harriet’s family, and almost certainly creating more trouble. And then of course, in my dream scenario, the parent can be like, oh she’s frightened of needles. Terrific. You can help her with that. I’ll help you help her with that. Wonderful outcome. And needle phobia is not that rare, actually , Reena, it’s one of those things that is a much bigger player in vaccine refusal than necessarily gets acknowledged. People who don’t like needles really don’t like needles.
REENA: Wow. I never knew that. That’s so fascinating. You know going back to this letter the mom is acknowledging the friendship is somewhat cooled off and they haven’t really invited her to the home. When you’re, I now we’ve done a podcast about trying to help kids make new friends, and you say it’s totally possible in the teenage years, but, you know, looking at what really matters at this point, for me going into the pandemic, I just didn’t want my kids to be scared. Like scared of COVID, create the anxiety in their head, so we talk about it a lot, but what do you think really matters when you’ve seen the early mental health research and this pandemic and mental health? What do you think matters that parents should focus on in a situation like this when you’re coming with families that might not be on the same page as you?
LISA: It’s a great opportunity actually to model healthy conflict. You know it’s a great opportunity to talk with your kid about, you know, we don’t agree with that family or that family’s choices are making us uncomfortable. We have options for how to pursue this. You can ask Harriet if you want to know what’s going on. You can have her over but we’ll supervise it if you need that? Do you want me to reach out to her parent? You know I’m sure that there will be a big fat no to that, but what’s horrible and full of potential in the pandemic is that kids are watching their parents having to navigate very, very delicate interpersonal interactions, and so let’s just then make a master class of it, and this mom from this letter is so clearly equipped to do it. She gets her kid, she thinks of things in really multi-perspective ways, and so take advantage of these really awkward situations to think through every possibility, to think through how it could be handled, to think through the unintended consequences of any choice that the child or the parent makes for trying to navigate the conflict. There’s never been a scenario where we’re gonna like what every other family around us does, where we’re going to like what choices other parents are making. The pandemic has given us 40 versions of that story. So, why don’t we have a lot of dinner table conversations that don’t necessarily drive towards a frightened or an ultimatum kind of reaction, but instead sit without nuance, sit with options, with consequences of what may come. You know, that may come as a result of any given choice. Man, you know, a kid who is almost 13 is all ready for this, and it has been brought to this family’s doorstep.
REENA: Wow, that’s great advice to have them look at this as a way of modeling how to deal with conflict. I never thought of that.
LISA: Yeah, well we might as well get as much out of this pandemic that we can because so much of it is miserable. So, if it can help us in our parenting and help with some of the hardest parts in parenting, we’ve got to take it. We’ve got to make what we can of it.
REENA: That’s so great. What do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: What I’m thinking about in this is this mother’s very, very high level of containment that’s very impressive. You know we talked in the past episode about expression and containment, and this mom is doing the most beautiful job of containing her own feelings around this, and just weighing and thinking it through, and so I think for parenting to go what I want us to remember as parents is a lot of our good parenting happens and what we do say, and a lot of our good parenting happens and we don’t say. This mom has not, it seems from the letter, been critical or harsh about this kid. She has not picked up the phone and asked questions of this other family. She’s done a beautiful job of containing her own strong reaction, which makes sense, the reaction does, and she’s laid the groundwork for really deep and thoughtful conversations with her own kid.
REENA: That’s great. Next we’re going to talk about how you can build your kids confidence and self esteem. Thank you, Lisa, I’ll see you next week?
LISA: See you next week.