Many of us have accepted that summer 2020 will look a lot different from summer’s past. While no one is happy about that – ask Blake Mac Lennan – perhaps no group is more let down than our teenagers and college students. Summer is party season, and with COVID-19 restrictions in place around the country, finding ways to socialize in person safely has been met with varying degrees of compliance.
Officials in Alabama warned of “COVID-19 parties”, where students who have tested positive for the virus are invited to infect others intentionally. While it may seem hard to comprehend why they’re so dismissive of the risks and potentially deadly consequences, Cameron Caswell (Dr. Cam) notes that most adolescents see themselves as invincible with limited ability to comprehend long-term effects. “They see bad things happen to other people, but never think those bad things could happen to them. So, no matter how many people get sick, it’s difficult for them to comprehend that they could get sick. And, even if they did, what would it matter? They’re young and healthy, so they’re not going to die from it, right?”
National Academy of Sciences psychologist and executive director of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at UCLA Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D. says, “Teens and college-aged kids live in the moment and are still developing self-regulation skills,” Uhls explained. “Their brains are still developing and their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps them think ahead, is not fully developed. They respond to risk and reward differently than adults and children, making them more likely to believe the risks don’t apply to them.”
So what’s a parent to do? How do we effectively communicate the gravity of the situation without causing them unnecessary distress?
Start with a simple conversation to understand where they’re coming from. With social media being their go-to source for information, there’s a good chance, some of what they believe to be true isn’t. Before you address the behavior, you need to understand their beliefs. Use what they’ve heard on social media like the COVID party stories in the news as a teaching tool, but don’t be heavy-handed and use it as a scare tactic. Uhls cautions Don’t overdo the fear, or they will discount your caution, but be matter of fact and honest.” Remember, tone is everything. Young adults need to feel heard and validated – a lecture is far less effective than a conversation.
Offer perspective. Teens and young adults tend to be the center of their universe, so it’s important to help them understand the big picture. Remind them, “This isn’t all about you.” The virus crosses age, gender, ethnicity, and every other boundary known and unknown. While young adults may not be high risk, grandparents, infants, and immunocompromised people depend on us to do our part and protect them. Wear a mask over your mouth and nose, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face. Make it your family mantra.
One of the most effective tools in parenting is to model the behavior you want to see. The old cliche “Actions speak louder than words,” rings true. Your children are unlikely to follow the guidelines and protocols if they see you dismiss or disregard them yourself.
Finally, don’t give up. Pediatrician Dr. Hela Barhoush says, “Conversations about coronavirus should be had at least once a week in every home, and these discussions should be kept simple, direct and reassuring. You want this information to come from you and not from outside sources where you can’t control what information is being fed them.” Wearing masks, washing our hands, and social distancing has become the new normal.