Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

The mother of a young adult asked me how we can teach young people to be mindful that their behavior has an effect on everyone. This is the same question being asked by the infectious disease experts and various state governors given the spike in coronavirus following young people’s disregard for masks and social distancing after the relaxation of restrictions.

The question is made more vexing by the fact that young people are putting themselves as well as others at risk by their behavior. The spike in cases appears to reflect a surge in a younger population. Adolescents and young adults are known to be risk takers, a characteristic expressed in other worrisome behaviors as well. The current behavior seems to reflect feelings of invincibility, indifference, or in some instances, defiance.

Very young children are known to express their feelings through their behavior. A familiar event is a child striking out in some way, either physically or verbally, because another child has taken something he was playing with, or because the other child won’t play the game the way he thinks it should be played. A common reaction is to feel that a child must be chastised and corrected in order to be taught appropriate social behavior.

A familiar response by a parent is to try to resolve the situation by having the “attacker” apologize to the “victim.” “Say you are sorry!” is what you may hear, especially if the parent of the striker-outer is on the scene. Our goal may be to help children learn how to express how they feel about something in a way that does not hurt or offend someone else. The question is whether being made to apologize helps children learn what we want to teach.

An apology empty of genuine feeling is quite meaningless. To mean it requires empathy - the ability to know and identify with how the other person feels. Empathy, like many other abilities, develops as children mature. We play an important part in that development by helping children become aware of the feelings of others. But first, we have to show empathy for their feelings.

A child whose own feelings have not been addressed is not ready to think about how someone else feels. It is by understanding and clarifying for our children what they themselves are feeling that they can begin to identify with what others might be feeling.

Of course, in addition to developing empathy the expectation is that children are also learning how to control their behavior. The gap between their ability to exercise controls and the resulting impact on others, can lead to the establishment of external controls. Within a family, parents may use rules or punishments and the withholding of benefits as a means of regulating unacceptable behavior.

In the larger society rules with the force of law are instituted as a means of regulating behavior and keeping social order. Age requirements for driving and alcohol consumption have been established in recognition of the external limits needed for the developmental limitations of the young.

The restrictions established in response to the pandemic have been difficult for young people, who have been unable to attend school, socialize with friends or engage in physical activities. The rule makers have shown an understanding of the feelings and needs of the young. Perhaps underestimated has been the impact of peer group association on young adults which resulted in socializing on beaches, in restaurants and bars with little regard for masks or social distancing.

Apparently, doing unto others needs external enforcement beyond what others might do unto you.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at