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Why Covid Has Broken Parents’ Sense of Risk

Dr. Slovic offered a hypothetical situation to illustrate how our feelings don’t always line up with the onslaught of modern facts: We are likely to be quite upset if we hear about two Covid cases at our child’s school, but we probably won’t be doubly as upset if we hear that there are four cases. As Daniel Kahneman explained in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “the amount of concern is not adequately sensitive to the probability of harm.”

Since we have been dealing with the virus for 18 months, we may no longer react the way we typically do when we hear more bad news. In these scenarios, some parents will overestimate the risk to their children, Dr. Peters said. But others will experience a phenomenon called “psychic numbing,” which Delia O’Hara of the American Psychological Association described as the “indifference that sets in when we are confronted with overwhelming calamity.” Psychic numbing sounds much more poetic than “dead inside,” and I appreciate that I’m not the only one who feels this way, because I no longer trust my emotions to guide me properly.

As parents hurtle into the fall, not knowing when a vaccine might be available to our younger kids, how do we cope with uncertainty and get past our numbness? There is no magic solution that will fix our sense of unease — we are in a pandemic still, it’s normal to feel uneasy. But having at least some sense of control about the choices we are making is key, Dr. Slovic said. One way to take back that control is “to listen to the experts who you feel are really knowledgeable and you can trust, whether they are local or national,” he said. “You should follow their advice and hope for the best.” In our case, that means sending our kids back to school in their masks, and crossing our fingers.

Another way to bring back a measure of control over the risk in your life is to try to think ahead of time about what your values are, and to game out moments where multiple values might be in conflict, Dr. Peters said. The example she gave was a family gathering: You might deeply value your children seeing extended family members, but you also do not want your unvaccinated kids to get exposed to Covid. Thinking about these trade-offs early “may seem more of an emotional and cognitive burden, and it is, but you will be steadier in the long run if you think about it ahead of time,” she said.

Something I find personally soothing is reminding myself that I can’t iron out the danger for my children in every situation. Part of maturing is learning to assess risk, and even though it can be painful to watch your kid bound out into the dangerous world, it’s the only way they can grow.

After some discussion, my husband and I did allow our older daughter to go on the play date with that new friend this summer. We felt comfortable with the Covid risk at that point, and our daughter was beyond excited to go to her friend’s house. About 10 minutes into the play date, we got a call from the father of the house. The kids had been jumping off the top bunk, and my daughter cut her head on a ceiling fan.

Though she bled profusely, she was ultimately fine, and she learned the hard way that jumping off the top bunk is a truly idiotic idea. While we warned her about Covid safety, we didn’t think to talk to her about hurling her body from a great height. She had to experience that risk alone.

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