The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our lives for well over a year. Now, thanks to vaccine rollouts and measures taken to reduce the spread of the illness, things are finally opening up.
For some this is a welcome relief to finally get the chance to travel again, to hug friends and family they have been missing, and to engage in community activities and outings.
On the other hand, people with social anxiety may find that the struggle is even more severe now that they are expected to attend in-person events or to return to in-person work.
And there is one group who may be feeling all these things but has the least control over it of anyone: our kids.
A Year in the Life of a Child
A year in the life of a 40-year-old is only 2.5 percent of the days they’ve lived. However, for a 6-year-old child, a year represents almost 17 percent of the life they’ve lived so far.
This disruption a child has experienced because of Covid has been significant and long.
And as much as we adults may be ready to bounce back to life as we knew it before, for kids, it can be a much more confusing proposition – pandemic life has been their normal for a psychologically longer time.
They may have grown and developed at such a rate that emotionally and physically, they feel like a totally different person compared to who they were before the pandemic hit.
For those of us with children, it’s important that we be mindful as we support our children to transition back to post-pandemic life.
Here are five things to keep in mind for the children in your life as we look toward this next phase.
Listen and notice.
When speaking with your kids, be attentive and engaged so you can really listen to what they are saying. Emotional presence and engagement send an unspoken message that they are important and worthy of receiving your full attention. Listen to what they are saying and be curious and interested in what they are doing and how they are feeling.
It’s also important to pay attention to their behaviour patterns, especially for kids who aren’t likely to admit how they are really feeling. Have they grown more irritable? Do they seem more physically exhausted? Are they complaining of stomach aches or headaches? Those are all potential signs of worry and stress and could possibly mean that they are struggling more than they are letting on.
Let go of “catch-up” expectations.
It’s understandable that a lot of parents are feeling the urge to make up for lost time with all the activities their kids have missed out on during the pandemic. But try to resist that urge, especially when it runs counter to what your child seems to want or need. Yes, you may be thrilled that swim team or sleepaway camp or that weekly playgroup is finally up and running again and you may want to dive right in – but if your child’s not feeling ready, respect that and go at your child’s pace.
Don’t view the return to “normal” as a switch to flip to make everything how it was before. Your kids may have lost interest in certain sports or friends over time — and maybe they’ll gain it back gradually, but maybe they won’t. And that is okay. They don’t need to go back to exactly how things were before; they only need to be themselves in the here and now and be loved for that.
Model talking about feelings.
One of the best things we can do for our children’s social and emotional development is to help them feel safe to talk about feelings. This is best done by modelling this ourselves: talking about our feelings in a nonjudgmental way and discussing the tools we use to manage our feelings. For example, “When I went out to that restaurant the other day, it felt sort of strange at first to be out again, and I was nervous I wouldn’t enjoy it. But I did some breathing exercises, and that helped me calm down — and it ended up being a fun evening.”
If your kids are hesitant to open up, you can still plant seeds that will grow in time. I guarantee they are paying attention.
Create gradual transitions.
Where you can, try to work up to certain activities gradually. Some children will feel more comfortable with a slower approach. Instead of the full-fledged slumber party for your now-vaccinated 12-year-old, suggest a casual overnight with one friend that she is closest to. And instead of full days of summer camp, ask your child if half-days would be better as a temporary start, if possible.
And if anxiety makes your child want to back out at the last minute, try to be flexible when you can and provide support and reassurance. The COVID pandemic has put kids through an emotional wringer in ways that we can’t always see. By offering them support and unconditional love, it helps them be less afraid of their feelings, and it helps nurture your relationship together.
Don’t make assumptions.
Even though your child may have said for months that they couldn’t wait to go to an amusement park with their cousins again, and now that it’s almost here, they seem indifferent to the idea. Or they may have said they have no interest in playing basketball ever again, and now they are frustrated with you that you missed the deadline to sign them up for a basketball camp their friends are all going to.
Be careful to not make assumptions and check in with where your kids are at now. It may have changed without you realizing it.
Your kids have been through a lot. Try to make space for the transitions they will experience as restrictions are lifted and they return to some of their former activities. Their feelings and preference may fluctuate and change – it is all a process. If you consider your own emotional upheaval over the past 18 months of pandemic life – imagine how that would be multiplied while your body and brain are growing, and you have relatively little control over your life.
Sensitivity, compassion, and empathy for your child with help all of you find your way through this next phase.
If you, your child, or your family are struggling, call our office, and one of our family therapists can support all of you to finding balance and happiness again.