I have two kids under 12. Neither is currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, although it’s on the horizon this fall. Meanwhile, life is going back to some semblance of normal. Massachusetts lifts remaining restrictions and relaxes mask guidance on May 29. We can even visit ball pits this summer. (Ball pits! Suspect in the best of times!) And as I’m wrapping my mind around that, I’m also fielding dozens of e-mails from my kids’ sports teams about safety protocols, which seem to change daily — or hourly.
As someone who spent 15 months protecting my family from a deadly pandemic, all this feels a bit psychologically unsettling. One minute I’m buying my kids a bottomless supply of masks at Old Navy; the next, I’m watching my fourth-grader sweat like a hog in his baseball dugout in a mixed-mask crowd and wondering if I’m going to let him jump into a mosh pit.
How do we reconcile this?
“What we’ve been through as a society is traumatic, and a lot of parents aren’t ready, and that’s OK. We’ve been shielding our loved ones from a major viral threat for 15 months. As a mom, even though I know the risk [for COVID-19 in kids] is low, I’m nervous. The psychology of risk is such that a lot of us are just feeling a little shell-shocked,” says Lindsey Leininger, health policy researcher and clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. She’s the co-creator of Dear Pandemic, a popular website that addresses common questions about COVID-19.
Experts say that kids, on the whole, do not suffer from COVID-19 to the same extent as adults. But there are exceptions, and kids have been known to contract multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). It’s impossible to write off the risk entirely.
“Kids do get COVID-19. The majority have not had significant complications, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t occur,” says Dr. Eshita Bakshi, chair of the pediatrics department at Emerson Hospital in Concord. Generally, symptoms are the same as in adults: fever, stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, difficulty breathing, loss of taste or smell.
Now, as parents, we need to weigh those risks for a little while longer. And it won’t be simple. How we react to COVID-19 as things open up is “such a personalized choice. It’s gotten wrapped up in people’s identity. There are in groups and out groups — people who are super-complaint or those who refuse to hand their life over to fear. How people balance risk is wrapped up in those identities,” Leininger says.
And as restrictions loosen, those choices have become even more intensely personal. With less state guidance, your interpretation of risk will depend on your child’s own health profile, which you should discuss with your pediatrician. But there are a few certainties.
For instance, vaccines for teens are safe.
“About 600,000 children between 12 and 15 received the Pfizer vaccine last week, including my patients, and it’s the same side effects we see in adults: local irritation, local pain. Some older teens have had some more COVID-like symptoms with second dose, as have our adults, but it’s resolved within 24 to 48 hours — fatigue, runny nose and stuffy nose, or headache,” Bakshi says.
Others have worried that the vaccine could harm future fertility, a myth that has been amplified on social media. This is false.
“There is no evidence of any impact on future fertility and no evidence showing that [the vaccine] delays the onset of menstrual cycle. We have followed thousands of women who started trials in 2020 and continue to monitor them; none of those women have been diagnosed with infertility, and they have also had pregnancies as well,” Bakshi says.
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently released guidance around masks for unvaccinated kids.
“Anyone who is not yet fully vaccinated, including children, should still wear masks, except for activities with just members of your household, such as a bike ride or walk; at small gatherings with fully vaccinated family and friends; during water sports like swimming and diving or sports where masks could pose a safety risk like gymnastics, cheer stunts, tumbling and wrestling; in activities where individuals can keep a distance like golf and singles tennis, and for children under 2 years old,” they say.
Psychology is trickier. How each of us interprets risk is so subjective, and the drive to protect our kids is completely legitimate. So is the drive to edge them back outside, toward socialization and familiarity. The bottom line: If all this feels tentative and foreign, that’s OK. Give yourself some grace. We can’t snap back to old ways of life overnight, even as we hurtle toward a world of ball pits and more.
“The guidelines are changing, and we may not be ready to change with them (especially as they’re becoming more lenient and our younger children are yet to be vaccinated), so I always encourage families to do what they feel is most comfortable. Have the discussion with your child’s pediatrician,” Bakshi says.
So as restrictions loosen, just as parents have had to do for generations, we need to assess risk levels for ourselves and own our decisions — to keep continuing to make the next best choice for ourselves, even if that feels awkward or overprotective.
And on the plus side? More vaccinations are coming, and this ambiguity won’t last indefinitely.
“This purgatory is almost over,” Leininger says.