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New school year, same COVID anxiety. How parents can help kids (and themselves) cope

Every norm parents once relied upon, from screen time to socialization, has been undercut or rendered laughingly obsolete by COVID and the Delta variant.

yasu hu/for The Boston Globe

Years ago, long before “coronavirus” was a household term, I came to a realization about raising my two kids: I might not be able to control when they nap, whether they want to play trombone, or if they end up getting onto the baseball team. Attempting to engineer a child’s future is futile and counterproductive. The best we can do is keep them happy and safe.

COVID-19 has upended that calculus. It is a special indignity for a parent like me, who refused to let my baby sleep on his stomach for the first year of life, to now send that baby to school in a pandemic, protected only by three-ply cloth. Every parent of a child under 12 sees an e-mail from school and now braces with dread: Is it a happy reminder about picture day, or the news that someone in your kid’s class has tested positive?


Now into the second full COVID school year, as we wait for our kids to get their vaccine, families are again grappling with uncertainty as the Delta variant drives more cases of COVID-19 among children.

Mental health experts (and parents themselves!) say concern over children’s well-being, readjustment to full-time school, and fears about what the future might hold are driving up anxiety for both kids and adults, whose internal monologues have turned into an ongoing back-and-forth over what can feel like life-or-death choices.

We worry about whether teachers are vaccinated (but are afraid to appear rude and ask). We worry about everything from drooping masks to missed socialization and learning loss. Last year, at least, there was a sense that we were all in this together. Now, with some people in favor of masking and some against, some opting for a vaccine while others refuse, life is full of ambiguity.

“It feels like everybody’s out there on their own boat in this horrible storm,” observes Nadia Chinchilla, who pulled her 3-year-old from a preschool in a town north of Boston last month. She says the school was reluctant to mandate vaccinations for teachers or require students to wear masks.


Chinchilla acknowledges that the risk to kids of severe illness from COVID-19 is relatively small. As of mid-September, more than 5.5 million kids in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But those cases accounted for just 1.6 percent to 4.2 percent of hospitalizations among states reporting data. Not terrible odds. Still, like so many parents, she didn’t want her child to be the unlucky one who got devastatingly sick or who suffered lingering, unknown aftereffects.

“I’ve looked at numbers. I’m very science-based. I understand the death rate is low, but I don’t want it to be my child. We don’t know what the long-term effects of COVID and children are,” she says. “The virus hasn’t been around that long.”

So Chinchilla kept her daughter home on the first day of school, despite starting a new job on the same day. “I feel like parents are being forced to make these decisions,” she says.

This is how a public health issue has reduced parents to amateur risk-benefit analysts, eroding our confidence and propelling our anxiety.

Stephanie Lander, a full-time physician assistant who lives in Southborough, feels beset by a litany of internal questions. Am I bringing COVID home to my kids? Is my kid really getting more benefit from preschool than the risk of COVID? Is my daughter ever going to learn how to interact with people? “These are the things that go through my head at 2 a.m.,” Lander recently shared with me on Facebook.


Every parenting norm we once relied upon to rig up our own personal house of cards — from sensible tech usage (forget screen time; iPads are now a survival tool right up there with KN95s) to socialization to education — has been rewritten, undercut, or rendered laughingly obsolete. Will our kids go into quarantine again? Will we be forced to work at 2 a.m. because we’re running amateur homeschools during the day? Is that cough really something worse?

It’s deeply unsettling, with pernicious mental health effects both for us and for our kids, who are dealing with going into school without the vaccine and also coming home to parents who are quietly trying to hold it together while trembling inside.

But here’s the riddle: The more we weigh risks, agonize over outcomes, and spin our wheels, the worse off we are. I know: It’s destabilizing for anyone used to control, or those kept afloat by a constant stream of information, to let go of the wheel. But we might just have to, for the sake of ourselves and our kids. This doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand about COVID. But it does mean understanding that risk has always been a cruelly inherent part of life; that’s just the bargain we make with fate whenever we have children.


yasu hu/for The Boston Globe

“What anxiety wants is certainty. And one of the mistakes we make as parents is that [certainty] becomes our quest,” says Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist in Concord, New Hampshire, who specializes in anxiety disorders and is the coauthor of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children.

This is why we might fixate on comparing the efficacy of identical masks, analyze statistics about hospitalizations, or lie awake at night: It gives us the illusion of control. Lyons encourages families to remember that uncertainty has always existed. Yes, COVID is one of our highest-stakes worries right now. But when is there ever certainty for parents? Think about it: You probably felt some level of anxiety the first time your child drove off alone in a car, went to a sleepover, or came down with the flu.

Parents should try to focus on teaching children “to tolerate not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, and being able to give them a sense that we can handle [situations] or we can adjust or we can adapt,” Lyons says. “Because there are things that are out of our control. And that’s always the case.”

So how do we embrace, or at least mitigate, the unknown?

First, in the rush to resume some semblance of normalcy this fall, honor kids’ very real fear of getting sick. Some children, especially those with no choice but to return to the classroom after a year of hybrid or remote school, have been understandably nervous about interacting in person with peers again, says Dr. Robyn Riseberg, founder and pediatrician at Boston Community Pediatrics.


“The thing I’m telling families is that, in general, kids are doing very well even if they get COVID,” she says. Remind your child of that — and tell yourself, too.

From a social perspective, frame reentry like getting into a hot bathtub: After a while, it doesn’t hurt as much. Start small, with shorter, outdoor playdates. Then segue into something bigger, like signing up for soccer again.

It’s important to ease kids gradually into safe experiences, such as playing outside or doing a game they enjoy. “You start out with something that feels comfortable, and then make your way towards what feels uncomfortable. It’s desensitization,” Riseberg says.

It’s also helpful to remind kids that they can be proactive and play a role in staying safe and fighting the pandemic. “Focus on the things you can control, [because] there’s so much related to COVID that makes us feel really out of control,” says Fatima Watt, director of behavioral health services at Franciscan Children’s hospital.

“I can control making sure that my kids have masks when they go to school, and making sure they have backup masks if needed,” Watt says, adding that parents can also stress the importance of hygiene.

Parents can wrest back some control, too. That might mean proactively lining up a pod group in case schools end up closing again; asking a family member in advance if they’ll help out if kids go back to remote learning; and sitting down with your partner, if you have one, to schedule who will work, and when, in case chaos strikes, Watt says.

Logistics are only part of the puzzle, though. It’s also crucial for parents to demonstrate resilience for our kids. It might be a strange pandemic silver lining: We can show our kids how to act when things are truly horrible.

“Parents [have to] pay attention to what they’re modeling for their kids about problem-solving, decision-making, and reasonable assessment of risk, and how it is that we handle big feelings and big uncertainties about what life throws at us,” Lyons says.

The families who can be flexible and accept some degree of ambiguity will do better than those “who are on a quest for certainty,” Lyons says, because there is no such thing for anyone. Think of the parent who throws an anxiety-driven tantrum if their child’s teacher assignment is changed, or insists on confronting the coach if their kid gets cut from lacrosse. They’re assuming a worst-case scenario — a new teacher will be terrible; a kid won’t be able to cope with rejection — instead of showcasing adaptability. They’re modeling fear instead of resilience.

Finally, don’t totally suppress your anxiety. You can be resilient while also being human. We’re all nervous. Acknowledge it to yourself, and acknowledge it to your kids. There’s no use in pretending this isn’t a tough time. “It is absolutely normal to have these feelings and to have these thoughts,” Lyons says.

But remember this: Peace of mind won’t come by finding that one perfectly filtered mask or checking vaccination data constantly. Anxiety has an insatiable appetite for reassurance, and there will never be enough information to make you feel 100 percent protected. We might have a vaccine for COVID — but nobody is immune to uncertainty. We’re all in it together.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.