Dr Slovic came up with a hypothetical situation to illustrate how our feelings don’t always match the onslaught of modern facts: We will likely be very upset if we hear about two cases of Covid at our child’s school, but we don’t. Probably won’t be doubly upset if we hear that there are four cases. As Daniel Kahneman explained in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, “the degree of concern is not sufficiently sensitive to the likelihood of harm”.
Since we have been battling the virus for 18 months, we may no longer react as we usually 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 numbness,” which Delia O’Hara of the American Psychological Association described as “the indifference that sets in when we are faced with an overwhelming calamity.” Psychic numbness sounds a lot more poetic than “dead inside”, and I appreciate that I’m not the only one feeling this, as I no longer trust my emotions to guide me properly.
As parents rush into fall, unsure of when a vaccine might be available for our youngest children, how do we deal with the uncertainty and overcome our numbness? There is no magic bullet that will solve our feeling of unease – we are still in a pandemic, it is normal to feel uncomfortable. But at least having some control over the choices we make is essential, Dr Slovic said. One way to regain that control is “to listen to the experts who you think are really competent and whom you can trust, whether local or national,” he said. “You should take their advice and hope for the best.” In our case, that means sending our children back to school with their masks on and crossing their fingers.
Another way to bring back some control over risk in your life is to try to think ahead about your values and eliminate the times when multiple values might conflict, Dr Peters said. The example she gave was a family reunion: You might deeply appreciate your children seeing extended family members, but you also don’t want your unvaccinated children exposed to Covid. Thinking about those tradeoffs early “may seem more of an emotional and cognitive burden, and it is, but you’ll be more stable in the long run if you think about it ahead of time,” she said.
Something that I personally find soothing is reminding myself that I cannot eliminate danger to my children in all situations. Part of maturing is learning to assess risk, and while it may be painful to see your child venturing into a dangerous world, this is the only way for them to grow.
After some discussion, my husband and I allowed our oldest daughter to go play with this new friend this summer. We felt comfortable with the Covid risk at this point, and our daughter was more than happy to go to her friend’s house. About 10 minutes after the game started, we got a call from the father of the house. The kids had jumped off the top bunk and my daughter cut her head off with a ceiling fan.
Even though she was bleeding profusely, she was finally fine, and she learned the hard way that jumping off the top bunk is such a silly idea. While we cautioned her about the safety of Covid, we didn’t think about talking to her about throwing her body from a great height. She had to live this risk alone.