If you’ve ever taken a family hike in the mountains, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a false summit. This happens when you are hiking up a hill through the trees and begin to notice how the curve of that hill starts to flatten. Your excitement builds as you anticipate reaching the goal of your journey, and perhaps you share words of encouragement with your children. Unfortunately, your hopes are dashed when you see the next hill in front of you. At this point, you have to re-energize the family to keep moving forward.
If you are hiking up a higher mountain (e.g., over 12,000 feet), you know that the end of the journey won’t appear until you are out of the trees. When you make that final turn out of the woods, you see the majesty of your destination for the first time. While you still have a long way to go, you feel this surge of energy as you can finally see the top. This excitement has to be bridled as you remind your family to take a break, take in some food and water, and maintain a steady/slow pace for the remainder of the hike ahead.
We all can attest to navigating false summits on the COVID-19 mountain. At first, we thought we would only have to shelter in place for a few weeks. We soon realized schools weren’t going back to in-person learning. There was even talk that the summer heat would end this COVID hike. Disheartened, we then realized we weren’t there yet. The 4th of July was followed by new surges. As we trekked onward, we hoped fall would bring some sort of return to normalcy. While some schools restarted, it wasn’t normal at all. On we hiked, however, hoping the summit would be reached by the holiday season. Once again, we had to address our family’s pain and suffering over canceled holiday plans and relied optimistically on unrelenting hopes for this mountain to end. This summit was false as well, as post-holiday case numbers surged again. Will this hike ever end, we wondered?
Now that we have turned to March 2021 – one year after the eruption of the COVID mountain, it appears that we are in that place at the end of the trees. As children return to in-person schooling —many for the first time — and the vaccine is starting to roll out, we are getting a glimpse of the final ascent. Our excitement and hopes build as you watch children pushing the space distance while at play and hear teens talking about the possibilities of a spring dance and in-person graduation. While these hopes are to be expected, this is not the time to back off on our health standards and start running ahead to the final summit.
To help lead your family to the peak, try these tips:
Take a break and review your successes. Just like stopping for food and water, nourish your family’s psychological attitudes by spending some time reviewing how you all made it to this point in the climb. One Denver school sent out an email at the start of February listing a variety of numbers, such as 15 tents on campus, 16 weeks of in-person learning, five safety rules observed, and zero COVID outbreaks. Talk about how your kids have fared wearing masks, coped with losing free play with friends, handled the grief of many losses, and kept diligently washing their hands.
Share your dreams for the summit. Just like plans for finishing off a real mountain with photos, a dance of joy, or signing the summit accomplishment list, discuss what you and your family are looking forward to after the climb. Getting the vaccine, upcoming government financial support, the hope of an overdue memorial service for a lost loved one, excitement for a wedding, expansion of the family pod, playing a high school sport, and/or visiting grandparents are just a few of things on our very long lists.
Set the rules for the final push. This means taking it slow, adhering to mask mandates, respecting social distancing, and not getting ahead of ourselves. Just like an Everest climber who never takes off their oxygen mask for the final push, remind your family how foolish it would be to discard these rules until the hike is done – especially after coming this far in the journey. Parents should stay focused on their own emotional, physical, and mental health. Parents and children are all stressed right now, and this needs to be verbally acknowledged. In addition, since most adults have taken on some extra pounds or over-consumed alcohol, this is a good time to assess, makes changes, and trim back. This is also a good time to cut back on the electronics to which your children have become so addicted. As things slowly return to normal, ensure your child/teen is engaged in other activities. Being active cures many ills for children and adults.
Plan a safe retreat. One of the greatest dangers when hiking the final push up a mountain is lightning. If it shows up, it’s time to immediately head back down to lower elevations. While being careful not to frighten younger children with talks of various strains of COVID, they do need to be aware things could change at any time. While you flattened the curve of those lower hills on your hike, that COVID curve could rise again. Use an accordion analogy to depict how while our freedoms are expanding right now, we may need to compress by cutting back on activities or switching back to online school. In addition, add some reality to those child/teen hopes. The spring dances or graduations may not take place. Likewise, we may still have to revert to cohorts and masks when school resumes in the fall.
Focus on resiliency. Remind your children, that even if we don’t make it to the top of this climb as quickly as we had hoped, we will reach it eventually. Every step up this mountain builds muscle and cardio strength. Every step your family moves up the COVID mountain makes you more resilient, stronger, and better equipped for more mountains and journeys in the future.