Why Covid Has Broken Parents’ Sense of Risk

There was a brief, shining moment in early summer when the decisions around Covid and my family felt manageable. My husband and I were vaccinated and had returned to some of our favorite indoor activities, like stand-up comedy shows and the gym. Our kids were at a mostly outdoor day camp with procedures we trusted, and the local case rate was low.

But as July bled into August, and the threat of the Delta variant increased and news about breakthrough infections emerged, my understanding of the risk of a given activity for any of us — but especially my 8- and 5-year-olds, who are too young to be vaccinated — went completely haywire.

A mundane question we faced was: Should we let our kid go to a play date with a new friend? Well, let me just check the case rate in this ZIP code and multiply it by the number of pediatric hospitalizations, then subtract the loss of joy and normal socialization my child will undergo by missing out on yet another typical childhood experience.

2020: Can I go running?

2021: My brother is a fully vaxxed Scorpio who only lies and my roommate is an unvaccinated INTJ who only tells the truth; how do we attend a 124-person outdoor wedding across a river with a fox, a chicken, and a sack of grain, and only one mask?

I would have predicted that this renewed level of uncertainty would make me more anxious, the way I had felt for most of 2020. But instead I have been pretty numb about it all, bombarded with too many statistics and too many confusing choices to feel anything other than dead inside when confronted with a new decision. It’s like all my old ways of considering risk levels are completely broken.

I wanted to understand why I was having this response, which felt counterintuitive, so I talked to psychologists who have researched risk. What I learned was that my brain has become so taxed by all the heavy-lifting around virus decisions that I became indifferent out of self preservation. And I’m not alone.

As Paul Slovic, the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit institute that studies decision-making, and a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, explained: Assessing new information is difficult mental work, and “the brain is lazy.” It is particularly hard for people to assess risk and act with compassion when we are bombarded with numbers, or as Dr. Slovic put it: “Our feelings don’t do arithmetic very well.”

Citing the work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist, Dr. Slovic explained that we think in two fundamentally different ways about risk: fast, and slow. “Fast thinking is intuitive, relying on our gut feelings, which come to us very quickly when our attention is turned to some issue.” The feelings tend to be broadly positive or negative, but they boil down to: Should I be afraid of this thing or not? “When we have feelings that are validated through experience, then experience is a very sophisticated and reliable mechanism for helping us get through our day.”

Slow thinking is more analytical. “It’s a more deliberative process,” said Ellen Peters, the director of the Center for Science Communication Research and a colleague of Dr. Slovic’s at the University of Oregon. It involves reading, analyzing numbers and thinking hard. This can lead to better decisions in some scenarios, but sometimes, “The world is so complex, we end up spinning our intellectual wheels,” Dr. Peters said. It’s also a more recent phenomenon in evolutionary history — our ancient counterparts were not thinking slow, they were worrying about the grizzly bear outside their hut.

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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