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Reframing COVID Rule Breakers

Could Self-Reg help us respond more effectively?

I think we need to cut young people some slack, or perhaps more to the point, show a bit of empathy for them, in the public clamour about COVID-19 these days.

As we all know, Canada’s new infection numbers have been rising again. But this time, more of the increase has been driven by younger people gathering in large group settings like bars, big house parties and the like. That’s given rise to all manner of outrage and condemnation from older people and some media commentators and politicians.

I totally understand the concerns, but not the self-righteous indignation. I think we (meaning society a large) should take a bit of a pause, and reframe the behaviour of young COVID rule breakers and the context of their actions so we can see them with softer eyes.

One thing that helps me reframe rule-breaking behaviour is to put myself into the shoes of children, youth and young adults. Remember what it was like to be young?

The younger generation has always—always—done things that irked, concerned and scared older people and “the establishment.” A lot of us, maybe most of us, ignored certain rules and norms when we were young. My generation, which normalized more widespread use of recreational drugs, were notorious rule-breakers!

So we shouldn’t be shocked that some—but, I hasten to add, by no means all— young people are flaunting pandemic rules. After all, some adults, including high-ranking American political figures, no less, are flaunting rules and norms in shocking ways.

What’s more, we are asking our young folks to do something that’s really, really hard—i.e. stressful—at their developmental stage of life. We’re asking them to give up the social interactions and gatherings that hold relatively little personal risk for most of them, but are crucially important to their self-perceived well-being. Social isolation is stressful for all of us, but even more so for young people. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with what today’s youth are going through. First-year university with none of the social gatherings that led to those important new friendships? Unimaginable to my young self!

Can all rule breaking be deemed stress behaviour? I dunno. Some of it seems fairly callous and wanton. But there are lots of reasons to think many young folks are stressed right now.

The other week my empathy centres pinged as I talked to a young person who lives in Montreal. This fellow, by the way, is being very responsible in his social life, as are most of the young people I know. He lives alone, and he bristled at the elitism of Quebec-based edicts to restrict your social contact to people in your own household. He rightly pointed out that these rules privilege people who live in couples or family groups, where they have natural people contact every day. “What are people like me supposed to do? Not ever see anybody except the people at work?”

This young man coped fairly well with social isolation during the spring lockdown. Then, in the summer, when case rates were low, he started to hang out at distance with small groups of friends in parks, or even go into people’s homes a few times. But the prospect of being stuck in his apartment all winter is much more daunting for him, and many other young folks. And that’s a reality that needs to be taken into account when we respond to their stress behaviour.

Having said all this, I also have empathy for those who must craft our pandemic advice and rules. They have to balance so many realities, and pressures, and the health, indeed the lives, of many people hangs in the balance.

I don’t have the answer to this multi-faceted dilemma. All I’m saying is that while young people who break the rules may indeed need to be reined in and subject to fines or other penalties at times, I don’t see how vitriolic condemnation and outrage help. Actually, my perception is that the outrage is ramping up people’s stress levels. And even higher societal stress levels and more red brain contagion is not what we need in these times.

If we’re going to manage and cope with this pandemic well, we need more blue brain/red brain balance in our communities. And we also need more empathy, compassion, curiosity and understanding around young people’s social realities and needs.

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Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
Oct 14, 2020

It’s definitely not, John! Do you have a suggestion on where to start?



John Hoffman
John Hoffman
Oct 14, 2020

HI: Thanks for your comment Aviva. Yes, this is not a simple thing is it. I'm noticing all kind of stress responses out there. People who, like you, are worried about a vulnerable family member. Folks who are worried for themselves. People in industries, such as performing arts, who have seen their livelihood totally collapse, with no idea when or even if it will come back. People who are angry because they think the imposed restrictions are too restrictive or unfair. Parents who afraid to send their kids to school, but also afraid that their kids aren't learning enough at home. People who are stressed because they disagree with family members about whether to visit or not. And people who…


Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
Oct 10, 2020

John, this post is causing me to pause and think. I understand and appreciate what you're saying here. I also struggle. I'm incredibly close with my parents, including my mom who's over the age of 70 and has a weakened immune system. I'm terrified about what COVID could mean if she got it. I know that I go to school each day, wear all of my PPE, wash my hands like crazy, limit my other social interactions to almost nobody, and try hard to stay safe for myself and my parents. What happens if the decisions of others (even if at times they might be caused my stress responses) ultimately end up with others getting sick? Getting angry isn't the…

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