Are You (Accidentally) Teaching Your Teen to Coronaparty?
If parents model poor coping skills, teens may take it one step farther.
Posted Mar 31, 2020
Coronapartying is the latest teenage trend to hit the headlines. It’s dangerous, it’s selfish, and it leaves parents wondering, “Where did we go wrong?”
In case you’ve missed it, coronapartying is when teenagers get together to party like it’s the pre-Corona era.
Remember the days when the only thing we had to worry about when our teenagers partied was what time they’d get home, if they’d use good judgment and resist peer pressure, and underage drinking? Now parents have to worry about them coming home with a deadly infection, or if they’ll pass that deadly infection on to others. Never has "don't be home late, it will break your mom's heart" had such serious connotations.
Why would a reasonably intelligent teenager coronaparty? After all, it’s not exactly possible that they’re unaware of the risks. Social media PSAs, commercials featuring celebrities, and their news feeds are all emphasizing stay at home, do the five, be a social distancing hero, and are educating them about the risks.
It’s widely known that coronavirus is most deadly to the very old and very young, people with compromised immunity or lung function, and people with other underlying conditions. Teenagers might reason that since they are not at risk, it’s safe to coronaparty with other teens. The fact that this puts the entire population at risk is a thought they can conveniently discard since they don’t feel the same level of threat that older adults feel.
Parents are wondering how their teenagers can be so irresponsible. “I didn’t raise my kid to be this way!” they might be thinking. But this type of behavior may have everything to do with the way their kids were parented, and here’s why:
Emotions as Problems to Be Solved
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we look at people’s attempts to “solve” their emotional states as one of the sources of psychological dysfunction. Instead of looking at “symptom relief” as the goal of psychotherapy, ACT looks at striving towards symptom relief as the cause of dysfunction in the first place.
Let’s try this thought experiment:
Imagine you are locked in an office building on the top floor. Suddenly, you smell smoke, and you realize the building is on fire. What do you do?
You might try calling for help on your cell phone, only to discover it’s dead. You frantically hunt around for a charger and plug it in. You look for a desk phone, but it’s not working. You might run to the window, to see if you can yell for help. You contemplate jumping out the window, but you’re too high up. You might look for a fire escape or an emergency exit. You might look around for a fire alarm to pull, hopefully to activate a sprinkler system and alert emergency services.
Now, this hasn’t actually happened, right? You are sitting at home right now, reading this article in the safety of your room. There’s no fire, no dead cell phone, and no fire alarm to ring. Your brain was able to imagine the scenario, think of possible solutions, discard some in favor of others, and prepare multiple lines of action, even though the situation isn’t real.
For real-world problems, the fact that our brains can do this is great. Our brains are really good at helping us escape potentially dangerous situations.
Now let’s apply this same line of reasoning to an internal fire. Suppose you’re at home, and you’re bored, lonely, and stressed out. Your brain is going to come up with all sorts of solutions to the problem. You could binge Netflix. You could stress-eat. You could cut yourself. Or, you could leave the house to coronaparty.
What Are We Teaching Our Teens About Emotions?
If the “emergency” is intolerable emotion, then our brains are really good at coming up with all sorts of solutions to intolerable emotion. If you’re a teenager, and you feel stressed out, you’re going to come up with some. Paradoxically, if you’re a teenager who is stressed about coronavirus, going to a coronaparty might be the solution your brain will come up with to help you manage that stress.
This is what happens when we model the idea that uncomfortable emotion is an emergency. If we model unwillingness to deal with our own uncomfortable emotions, if we model suppressing or ignoring emotions, we teach our kids to do the same. We unconsciously signal: "Uncomfortable emotions are an emergency. Get rid of them at all costs!"
When emotions become the emergency, solving the problem means lowering those emotions. “I can’t see my friends. I’m stressed out. What if this coronavirus thing never ends? What if my mother loses her job? What if someone I know dies?” It’s not a stretch to going from those thoughts to intolerable stress levels, and it’s not a stretch to go from there to agreeing to attend a coronaparty.
Whenever emotions become the enemy, humans don’t cope well. Emotion socialization theory posits that it’s up to parents to help their children attain emotional coping skills. Parents can do this by being attuned to their own emotions, modeling proactive coping with emotions, and talking to kids responsively about emotions. (To read more about the emotion socialization model and teenagers, click here.) If we show our children how to cope with emotions, especially at the time in their lives when emotions become so intense, they learn positive coping strategies.
It’s more important than ever to talk to our teens about their emotions and their stress level. It’s a perfect time. They’re home, they’re available, and they’re less able to tune in to their peer group. Now is the time to model honesty and acceptance of our own emotional states, help give them an emotional vocabulary, and help them sort through what they’re feeling. Right now, that’s not just good parenting. It might just be lifesaving. And the life you save just might be your own.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020
Stoddard, J. A., & Afari, N. (2014). The Big Book of ACT Metaphors: A Practitioner's Guide to Experiential Exercises and Metaphors in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.