Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My son doesn’t want to go out until there’s a vaccine — he’s terrified of getting sick or getting us sick. What should I do?

How to handle anxieties during COVID-19 reopening

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP

Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

My son doesn’t want to go out until there’s a vaccine — he’s terrified of getting sick or getting us sick. He has always been anxious, but this is a whole new level. What should I do?

For kids who are prone to anxiety, stress and uncertainly can absolutely make it spike.

One inclination would be to agree that you won’t go anywhere until there’s a vaccine, but that’s unrealistic because we don’t know when that’s going to happen.  Or you might be tempted to postpone the issue: “Well, we don’t have to go out today so I will deal with this worry maybe a month down the line.” But both of those responses may inadvertently strengthen your son’s anxiety.

You might also have an inclination to make him feel better by saying something like, “You’re going to be fine, you don’t need to worry about that.” Providing reassurance is important but too much reassurance can communicate that you underestimate your child’s ability to cope.

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When a child is expressing this kind of worry we want to validate their concerns. You might say something like, “I know you really don’t want to go out until there is a vaccine, and I really understand that you’re worried about getting sick or getting us sick.”

But then you want to let him know that you have assessed the risk and figured out reasonable steps for your family to take. You might say, “While I can’t guarantee with 100 percent certainty how things are going to look, I can tell you what we’re doing to keep safe. This is why we have gloves and masks. This is why we wash our hands when I come home from the grocery store.” And so on.

You’re letting your son know that you have studied the guidelines about going out in your area, and made a careful decision for your family. Kids do really well when they understand what steps we are taking as adults and what steps they can do.

These are actually the moments to push a little bit and do with your son what we call exposures, which are just ways of practicing being brave in a situation that’s hard, starting with some really small steps. You might say to your son, “When I go get the mail I want you to come with me.” You start with 60 seconds of going to the mailbox, and while it might seem a little silly, it is actually going to help your child. After a few days of that, you might increase the task to staying outside for 5 minutes. Taking small steps will help him build the confidence he needs to get comfortable when you go out as a family — with precautions, of course.

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