Many teens and pre-teens emerged from mandatory lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 starved for the company of their friends.
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Despite new rules of engagement that include wearing face coverings and avoiding large gatherings, some young people packed sidewalks, restaurants, beaches and parks. There were hugs and close huddles — sometimes with no masks in sight.
Now, the rate of positive COVID-19 tests in this age group are climbing. Adults have been left wondering whether young people failed to understand the danger or chose to ignore the warnings.
In some ways, this was actually predictable behavior, says Ellen Rome, MD, MPH, Head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine.
“A sense of invulnerability — showing up here as an act of defiance — is part of the adolescent mindset,” she says. “This reaction is developmentally typical.”
Most adults understand that COVID-19 could possibly make them sick enough to die, and that they need to protect themselves from exposure to the coronavirus. They also understand that even people who don’t have symptoms could be infected and spread the virus to others.
But adolescents don’t always think so logically. Abstract thought — which includes the ability to understand consequences — doesn’t tend to develop until the later teen years.
Although adolescents look to their peers for support, direction should come from parents or caregivers.
“Authoritative parents are lighthouses that provide a safe harbor and a way to reach it,” Dr. Rome says. “They guide, encourage and step in when there are issues involving mortality, ethics or safety, which certainly describes COVID-19.”
If you’re a parent of an adolescent, you can help them navigate current challenges by figuring out where they are coming from and playing to their strengths.
Here are some ideas for how to talk to them about following COVID-19 precautions.
As a final note, Dr. Rome advises being supportive and inclusive. “Ask your adolescent about their fears, respond with empathy and invite them to create innovative solutions,” she says. “You may be surprised at how well they respond.”