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What to Do When Your Children Put You at Risk of COVID-19

In multigenerational households, adult children may not view virus risks the same way as parents

A father and adult daughter talking

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En español | A few minutes after Vered DeLeeuw saw her daughter hug a friend, she sobbed.

DeLeeuw, 50, had not been vaccinated and her 20-year-old daughter was living with her. Worried about exposing her family to COVID-19, DeLeeuw's daughter had been extra careful, wearing an N95 mask when she traveled home from college by plane, not hugging or kissing family members during the initial quarantine period, and agreeing to social distancing rules as she began to interact with others outside the house.

Then one evening DeLeeuw spotted her daughter hugging a friend goodbye.

Protecting yourself from COVID-19 in a multigenerational home

• Discuss risks and concerns. Older adults may perceive COVID-19 threats differently than young adults. Honest, clear communication is critical.

• Express feelings. If you tell your adult child your fears about COVID-19, they are more likely to understand

• Be clear about your social distancing expectations and what you feel comfortable with. Get buy-in from adult children.

• Don't impose strict rules. Work with adult children to come up with restrictions everyone can live with.

"I was shocked, hurt and enraged,” says DeLeeuw, a certified nutrition coach and founder of HealthyRecipes.com. “My loving, kind, responsible daughter, whom I trusted, betrayed my trust and exposed herself — and as a result, exposed us — to that friend's germs."

Right now, more adult children are living with their parents than at almost any time in history. In fact, the number of 18- to 29-year-olds living with their parents has surpassed the peak during the Great Depression. But their different perceptions of risk, pressure from job requirements, and social interaction could put their elders at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Physical and emotional protection

Vaccine doses are rolling out, but many people remain unvaccinated and COVID-19 is still a threat. People, especially those who are older and at higher risk of complications, continue to try to limit exposure.

Navigating a multigenerational household may be difficult because of the competing needs of those involved, says Wilfred Farquharson IV, director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at the Stony Brook University Health Sciences Center in New York.

Young adults — especially those who have lived on their own at college, or those who have been forced back after living independently — may struggle with the requirement that they consider the needs of others in the household. The challenge is to protect each other from COVID-19 but also to protect the familial relationship, says Farquharson. Adult children don't want to be treated like young children, with rules imposed on them.

Communication is the key. “Start with the emotion and say, ‘I'm fearful,' ” Farquharson says. “That should automatically reduce the level of defensiveness and the impression that [the parent] is trying to control their movement."

Especially because it relates to health, parents worried that their child's behavior puts them at risk need to be vocal, says Steven Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and behavioral specialist in the Philadelphia area.

"If a parent living with their adult child is concerned and afraid,” he says, “they should speak with their children and not dance around the issue."


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COVID risks and expectations

Therese Intrater, 50, an oncology nurse who works with COVID-19 patients at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, is insistent that her children, including two in their 20s, wash their hands, wear masks (sometimes double), don face shields and social distance.

Although Intrater's parents, who are in their 80s, live just two blocks away, her children have not been inside their grandparents’ house for more than a year. When Intrater visits, she wears the same type of protection she wears at the hospital.

"I am probably more aggressive than most moms,” she says about the restrictions she has for her children. “No restaurants, no church, no friends’ houses. If they want to socialize, they can come over, socially distance, and sit around the firepit.”

While every family has to make its own decisions about its comfort with risk, firm expectations can be vital to reining in the virus and keeping others safe, Rosenberg says. Parents should be clear about why the restrictions are in place.

“It is also important to share their fears of infection and the fatal impact COVID could have,” he says.

That type of open conversation eased DeLeeuw's fears. When her daughter saw her mother crying, she revealed that the friend's hug had surprised her. She promised she would not allow the situation to recur.

"We agreed that if this happens again, my daughter would be prepared,” DeLeeuw says. “She had a plan of action — she would immediately step back, apologize and explain that she was protecting her parents."

What to Say When a Loved One Is Taking Risks With COVID

Nancy Dunham is a contributing writer who covers automotive issues, home improvement and healthcare. Previously she served as a reporter and editor for several daily metropolitan newspapers. Her work has also appeared in People MagazineThe Washington Post, USA Today and U.S. News & World Report.

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