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Building Trust Between Parents and Children in a Pandemic

Many parents are concerned that the uncertainty of COVID-19 is undermining their credibility with their children. Since the pandemic began, conflicting predications have been widespread (“A vaccine will help us return to a new normal but watch out for the new variant!”). Basic questions that organize a child’s life are now unanswerable, like, “Is there school?” or “Can I hug grandma?” In these strange times, parents must set boundaries for their children while keeping in mind they may change or that they differ from their next-door neighbor. 

Each of us can do our best to understand the science, but even the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Fauci struggles to answer children’s questions. Ultimately, parents must decide who to trust for guidance: the CDC, the news, or places of worship. It is the job of a parent to trust wisely, and to communicate that trust to their children. 

Infants develop attachment to responsive and effective caregivers, the foundation of trusting relationships. By the preschool-years, children display selective trust by listening to people who have been accurate in the past. They are remarkably sophisticated in excusing people who were wrong but for the right reasons, and giving “the benefit of the doubt” when they have a secure attachment. Indeed, for young children, trust is not about always being right, but involves solidarity and affiliation. With age, children become more strategic by choosing to follow models for more difficult tasks rather than searching for the answer themselves. Adolescence is normally a time to reject tradition and strikeout on one’s own, but the pandemic makes it difficult for teens to experience this. Now more than ever, teens need to trust their parents’ and caregivers’ rules for keeping the family healthy.  

A generation of parenting manuals has warned against the “because I said so” style of parenting. But a slight variation, “this is how we do it,” is both a powerful and appropriate response that conveys the idea of how people should act in an uncertain situation like a pandemic. This has been challenging for U.S. adults, who need motivation for following these social norms. Raising a family during the era of COVID-19 requires a shift in parenting by relying on trustworthy sources rather than solely on knowledge and personal experiences.

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