Question from a parent – How can I deal with this stupid problem of my 18 year old who heard that Nicky Minaj’s cousins’ friend had his testicles swell up and now she won’t get the vaccine?
A parenting book I read said what we say to our teens is worth 1 point and what their peers say is worth 100. So the teen in the question here is on track developmentally. Knowing what is developmentally normal might not make us feel any better if we are worried that our child is hesitant about having the vaccine. Parenting in this age range involves many differences of opinion. It feels like a lot of pressure to make sure our teens make good choices. Adults have had plenty of practice making decisions over our lives but it’s totally different for our teen who doesn’t have that range of experiences. Teenage brains lack a fully functioning pre-frontal cortex and it isn’t finished developing until they reach their mid 20’s or even 30’s. Immature brains mean teens have a limited ability to think into the future. Good thing they have us.
What we observe is a tendency for teens to jump to the worst possible outcome in a single moment. Their emotional response to negative information about vaccination can be extreme. Teens can say these sorts of things – What if the vaccination will make me infertile? Should I freeze my eggs? In this strong emotion zone the feelings are raw and unprocessed. It can be hard not to jump into that feeling and come up with out own extreme response to squash their outburst. What is going to help our teen in the moment is to slow down and be the calm, alert and focused person in the room. Instead of saying “this really is a stupid way to think” take a couple of deep breaths. Make time to think about how you want the tough conversation to go. When we get into a habit of putting energy into how we want it to go we will be more effective at helping them process the emotions. We need to be clear on our tone here and it’s is less about force and more about how to be influential. Here are a couple of ways to keep communication channels open:
- Fall into the trap of telling them what you really think they should do. You think it is stupid. You feel annoyed because you think it is against the weight of evidence. You are backed up by science and the government. None of these factors are going to matter to a stressed out teen so press the pause on them.
- Try to use logic and reason with them that there’s no need to feel worried. This is another trap that will be more likely to derail the conversation. Our teens have already said they are worried so we need to accept that at face value.
- React strongly or else it will make it harder for them to self-regulate their emotions when they get caught up in yours. Kids of all ages feel emotionally dysregulated when they see us struggling to manage our emotions.
- Dismiss what they say. When a parent says “that’s a stupid idea” or something similar it feels like parents are telling them they have no right to feel the way they do. When we tell them that the emotions they have aren’t accurate this won’t help either. Often we see strong reaction and communication is disrupted. We can’t influence them without communication.
- Ask permission to talk about it and they are more likely to discuss it – “Are you open to talking to me about what is going on for you with the vaccination?” has a much better sound than “This is stupid” as they are going to feel like we respect them and their boundaries.
- Keep the tone friendly, if you are not in the right mood then choose another time when you are to have the chat.
- Be thoughtful about how you ask what they think the pros and cons are about having a vaccine. “What do you think your friends will be thinking when they are working out what to do?” is a good start, rather than, what are you thinking which can sound like an inquisition to our teen.
- Be an emotion coach. This means naming their feelings – “Oh, that sounds like it feels scary to you.”
Keep calm and carry on
So if you are feeling a lot of pressure to make sure your teen makes decisions based on what you believe this makes a lot of sense. As parents we want them to be safe and to make healthy choices. We know they have to navigate new decision making territory on their own. It’s going to take a while until they figure out how to do this. As much as we feel frustrated by people who spread misinformation we need to keep our cool to help them. Make it less about ensuring they make the choice we want them to make. Focus more on connecting with them and facilitating their decision making process. It’s being able to have tough conversations and keeping communication channels open that maximises our influence. We are there the ones who will be there all day everyday. Our teens need us to talk about everything and anything, including some really important choices.