Those of us who have parented teenagers tend to agree that it is not for the faint of heart — I am currently in the thick of it with two teen boys at home. When you throw in a pandemic and my job as a pediatric ICU physician, things get even more interesting.
Teenagers are not known for making great decisions. They drive too fast, climb too high, experiment too much, and rarely consider the consequences before they act. The teenage body, at the top of its physical game, and the teenage brain, convinced of its own immortality, team up to create an extraordinary risk-taking human. As it turns out, biology is one big reason the “Big Air” categories at the X-Games are full of teens.
Unfortunately, the same things that make teenagers incredible extreme athletes can work against them in a pandemic. How can you possibly convince a teenager, who is biologically programmed to believe they will live forever, that they should wear a mask and stay 6 feet away from all their closest friends 100% of the time? You can’t.
As we age, our brains develop and our bodies take longer to recover. We suddenly understand mortality in a way that we were incapable of when we were younger. We cannot and should not expect our kids to act like adults. They just aren’t there yet, so it is the adults’ job to protect them.
We understand this inherently and have difficult conversations with them about drinking and driving, promising to pick them up no matter what time they call.
But right now, during a pandemic that can insidiously spread and cause fatal infection without warning, by the time we get that call, it may be too late. They may have already contracted the virus and be bringing it home with them.
Our teenagers need us now more than ever and they need us to be their parents, not their friends. They need us to be strong and decisive. When they beg to go to a party “because everyone is going,” they need us to say “No!” They need us to actively limit their exposure to other teens. They need us to model social-distancing and mask-wearing. They need us to advocate for the safe reopening of schools, which requires all of us to control the virus in our communities that surround our schools.
A recent study showed children over the age of 10 spread COVID-19 as readily as adults. In the ICU, we are bracing for the influx of patients that we fear will arrive once schools are back in session, and we dread giving families the worst news of their lives.
We need parents to understand that once their child arrives in our ICU, we will do everything in our power to help their child as they fight the virus, but once they are infected, we cannot protect them from the ravaging course the coronavirus may take on their body. A far better plan is to prevent them from ever needing to go to the pediatric ICU in the first place.
If you’re a parent, do not allow your teen to congregate in large groups and certainly do not facilitate these gatherings yourself. Insist that every family member wear a mask when you’re around other people. Social distancing and mask-wearing are simple, straightforward prevention measures that are more powerful than any treatment we have in the hospital.
Your teen may roll their eyes and slam their door, but they are counting on you now more than ever.
You got this.
Alan Graham, MD is a doctor specializing in pediatric critical care.