As time and the pandemic continues, teens, like everyone else, are developing a serious case of cabin fever. In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a college student explains why teens are partying despite safety concerns and an expert shares what parents can do to protect them from COVID-19.

Illustration of Teens at Party
Credit: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

If your teen is anything like me, they might have secretly enjoyed the first few weeks of quarantine. Aside from the terrifying events happening around us, there is something to be said about being home with family, catching up on Netflix, baking another loaf of bread, and generally slowing down. However, now that six months have passed and the pandemic is still here, teens, like adults, seniors, kids, and pretty much anyone else, are developing a serious case of cabin fever.

In the news, horror stories of teens partying are reduced to a few key details: hordes of adolescents and no sense of social distancing, with the ultimate result often being COVID cases in the double digits. As colleges reopen, these reports just becoming more common. It is easy to dismiss the actions of these young people as horrifically selfish, imprudent, and overall stupid. In a lot of ways, those are fair condemnations. But teens are not entirely irrational, troublesome villains. There is a reason why a teen, your teen, might want to party during the coronavirus pandemic. Understanding and empathizing with that reasoning, even if you don't respect it, might be the key to keeping your child safe.

Pandemics Limit Social Interaction

It is a surprise to no one that in-person interactions have been seriously, if not entirely limited, by the spread of COVID-19. Teens are often cooped up by themselves on college campuses, or at home with their families. No matter how well a family gets along, it is no replacement for genuine interaction and connection with one's own peers. That's why teens are starting to rebel—we've hit a boiling point that might motivate us to seek respite by partying with friends.

Your Teen Has an Immortality Complex

The other reason a teen may consider partying during the pandemic is due to a buoyed sense of safety. Mixed signals from media may bolster a teen's confidence that even if they were to contract the coronavirus, it would be like suffering from a mild cold. This false sense of confidence in a teen might prompt them to feel safer attending an event like a party, as they believe they couldn't possibly become ill.

What I'd Want My Parents to Say to Me

I'd want my parents to show empathy for how lonely I might be feeling at this time. It could help if they explain that they understand this and know that being cooped up in the house isn't easy. I also think it's important for parents to explain and demonstrate the science behind the pandemic for teens who might not truly understand it. Teens can understand how our society is connected, but they might not be thinking that way at a given moment.

While the coronavirus might not feel like a danger to a teen, I'd want to be reminded that it very well could be for my parents, an immuno-compromised relative, grandparents, and hosts of others. Parents should emphasize it is for everyone's safety, not just our own, that we practice social distancing and wear a mask in public. Because when the party is over, we don't necessarily know who our friends might be going home to.

An Expert Weighs In

"Teens often have a difficult time understanding their own mortality so it is vital for parents to relay the dangers of the virus and how that relates to their teen’s actions, in a way that does not incite panic," says Barbara Nosal, Ph.D., LMFT, LADC, chief clinical officer at Newport Academy. "Calmly explaining to teens that their actions may affect more than just themselves may better help them to understand that the pandemic is larger than they are."

Dr. Nosal does point to research that shows social interaction to be critical for teens' mental health and overall wellbeing and development. "The key is to do this safely," she says. She suggests that parents acknowledge the struggles their teens are facing and offer them safe solutions to see their friends, like socially distant meetups that happen outside at a park or a beach. "Some sports teams and groups are beginning to meet up with safety precautions in place like social distancing and face coverings," she says. "Parents can lead by example by embracing technology to host “House Party” and “Game Nights” with extended family members or friends for teens to see that virtual gatherings can be a fun alternative to in-person get-togethers. We all realize that this time is full of frustration, but there are alternatives to reinforce safety and prevention for everyone’s sake."

Parents should expect some pushback as your teen gets frustrated by the limitations and rules that continue through the fall. "Remember that this is a hard and stressful time for everyone, so take it one day at a time," says Dr. Nosal. "Let your children know that none of us have experienced this before and we are all trying to do the best we can to remain safe. As a parent, we have a responsibility to keep our children safe and that is what motivates our actions."

The Bottom Line

Partying during a pandemic is a bad idea. That isn't rocket science. But instead of judging your child for craving time with friends and a release, help them seek that in a safe way for all those involved.

Elle Grant is a 20-year-old writer at Johns Hopkins University where she studies history, creative writing, and French. She hopes to pursue a career in publishing or media after graduation.