Why aren’t some teens taking coronavirus seriously?

As confirmed COVID-19 cases rise across the United States, parents might feel confused by or frustrated with teens who don’t seem to care about the pandemic, ignore recommended safety precautions, or believe the virus isn’t a problem at all.

Parents need to remember that it is perfectly natural for adolescents to push boundaries, question authority, and embrace risk – their brains are wired to do these things during the teen and young adult ages. They also tend to think that “bad things” won’t happen to them even if they see other people suffering. Since teens naturally tend to question everything, they need a reason to follow protocols that makes sense to them, especially if they are being expected to give up things that matter a lot to them, such as hanging out with friends.

Since teens are natural risk takers, messages about how to be safe need to be very clear for them to understand and believe. The messaging in the U.S. around coronavirus has been inconsistent and complicated, so many teens have been unwilling to fully embrace the safety precautions, thinking about them more as suggestions from fearful people rather than as requirements.

Yalda T. Uhls, PhD, psychologist, noted, “Teens and college-aged kids live in the moment and are still developing self-regulation skills. 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.”

Part of a parent’s role during the pandemic is helping their teen make sense of the conflicting messages and explain the risks of the pandemic in simple terms. Here are strategies to talk to teens and college-aged kids about COVID-19 in a way that might prompt them to take the risks more seriously.


Before you discuss your own viewpoints on the pandemic or lecture about the risks, ask your teen what they think. Listen to their opinions without judgment or criticism. Seek to understand why they ascribe to a certain viewpoint. Ask if they have any concerns. Ask what their perception is of how others, such as friends and classmates, are dealing with the pandemic. Do not dismiss their opinions, worries, or frustrations, even if they seem trivial to you.

Listening accomplishes three helpful goals:

  1. It demonstrates that you value their opinion, which builds a trusting relationship.
  2. It will give you insight into where your young adult gets their information and what they value.
  3. Once you understand what they value, you might be able to develop rules that will still keep them safe, but are actions they can reasonably follow.


Discuss reputable sources.

Teens and young adults get a lot of their information on social media, and unfortunately, only a small percentage of it is accurate. Take the time to bring up news stories you have heard and discuss them, perhaps at the family dinner table. Let your teen voice their opinion on the news story without judging them. Also use this time to discuss the different types of sources for news and how to identify bias in reporting. Teens should be aware that different media outlets have different goals in what they promote.

When you bring up reputable news stories, be sure that you don’t use them as a scare tactic. You should stick with facts, be honest, and make sure you say “I feel” before you state your own opinion. When you overdo fear, teens will likely discount your caution.

Appeal to the greater good.

Despite their reputation as self-absorbed, social research has proven that teens are actually empathetic to the improvement of society and willing to change their behavior for the betterment of their community. Encourage them to consider how their actions might impact others. Many adolescents have friends and family members who have compromised immune systems, so this can be an opportunity to introduce the idea that wearing masks are important to protect other significant people in their lives. Teens might perceive wearing a mask as a weakness, so emphasizing collective responsibility might be more effective than making it personal.

Role model.

Empathy is a learned behavior. Model the behavior you want to see. Children, even teenagers, tend to mirror the practices of their parents. In addition, teens have a strong dislike of anything they see as hypocritical. You cannot tell them to wear masks in indoor locations, but then run into Walmart with no mask on. And, praise your teens when you see them taking precautions or demonstrating respect for others.

Don’t give up.

In conveying the importance of COVID safety to your teen or young adult, it’s important to stay the course. Even if your teen seems to be defiant, continue using the strategies above, and remind your teen that the precautions are not forever. Eventually life will return to normal, but in the meantime, listen to your teen’s perspective, discuss reputable news sources, role model the behavior you want to see, and appeal to your teen’s sense of community.

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