How to Help Your Kid Emotionally Recover This Summer
Your kids have been through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Wise words from a few experts will help you help them emerge stronger than ever.
Over the summer of 2020, when my son was about to turn 6, he easily became weepy and frustrated, which I mistook initially for a phase, some emotional milestone. Before his birthday, I told him I didn't think I could afford an entire SpongeBob-themed party. He sobbed and said I had "betrayed" him. One night I went to change the TV channel and he began to cry, saying he thought I might make him watch the news. It wasn't until he started in-person school at the end of September and went back to being the joyful, playful, fun-loving kid I knew that it clicked: The pandemic had stirred him up in ways I hadn't understood at the time. When school went back to virtual after a winter-holiday spike and he reverted to those volatile summer of 2020 emotions, my suspicions were confirmed.
Multiple parents I've spoken with have witnessed a similar shift in their kids, often mistaking it, as I did, for a sign of a new developmental phase. "My daughter had just turned 4 at the beginning of the pandemic, and during the 11 weeks I kept her home, she lived as a cheetah 90 percent of the time," says Susan Parker, a mom of two in Houston. "I mean that literally. She would not break character, even for meals. She wanted me to put her food, which was always 'gazelle,' on the ground so she could eat like a cheetah. And I was so over everything by then that I was like, 'Whatever, eat your gazelle, cheetah.'" Her daughter resumed life as a human kid after going back to day care in June of 2020, Parker says.
But returning to normal life isn't always a cure-all. Allison Wicks, of Metairie, Louisiana, says, "My 4-year-old son has been extremely clingy and sensitive since last March. I thought going back to school would help, but all it did was make him extreme about hand-washing and cleanliness. He is terrified of germs and of becoming ill." Wicks adds, "Poor dude was washing his hands so much that I had to tell him he could only do it under adult supervision, and I had to buy him his own special lotion because the skin on his wrists was beginning to peel."
Several studies that tracked the impact of the pandemic on kids' and teens' mental health last June showed significant changes in behavior and mood in kids around the world, with parents reporting that their children were suffering from anxiety, angry outbursts, and emotional withdrawal. Teens in particular have been feeling the sting of isolation. "It's almost like they'd been held back a year," says Parents advisor Becky Kennedy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. "So much of adolescence is exploring who you are away from your parents and figuring out your identity, exploring your independence through some separation. Teens haven't been able to do that." According to the March 2021 C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, 46 percent of parents surveyed noted signs of deteriorating mental health in their teens during this year.
Since the pandemic began, adults have been figuring things out in real time, while kids of all ages have simply been trusting their grown-ups. Now that things are normalizing, kids need us to guide them more than ever. Luckily, pediatricians and child psychologists agree that kids can weather the transition if we set them up for success by planning beforehand, teaching coping strategies, remaining calm, and taking care of ourselves too.
Get Back in the Swing of Things
It may sound obvious, but to ease your child's feelings of isolation, confusion, and loss, you'll need to get back to some semblance of normal life. According to parents' reports, children receiving distance learning or hybrid schooling experienced dips in their mental or emotional health more frequently than those who were in school full-time, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); these kids were also far less likely to see friends or spend time outside. What's more, the CDC found that the parents of kids in distance-or hybrid-learning models were also more likely to report emotional challenges, and when a parent is chronically stressed, kids take notice.
In some cases, returning to the community will get kids back into programs and services that vastly improve their lives, since many families rely on in-school counseling, intervention, and community activities that ceased to be available during the pandemic, and they have struggled without them. This is particularly true for children with special needs. But any child who has been isolated from both peers and new experiences has taken an emotional hit, Dr. Kennedy explains. "Part of the developmental task of childhood is exploring and learning, and we've had to tell kids it's not safe to explore, to separate, to go out and feel free in the world. They've had to become inhibited and constrained."
Now we're asking them to unlearn everything they've been told for more than a year. "We have to respect that we've been sending a very different message to kids about how to stay safe, one that is almost antithetical to what we typically tell kids, which is that being out in the world is a good thing," says Dr. Kennedy. "We have to help them understand this big change, and we'll have to tolerate some struggle, and help them learn to tolerate some struggle that might come along the way."
Part of moving forward is looking back with your child and acknowledging explicitly what a strange time it's been. "You might say, 'I know it's been weird and scary to be home for so long and to go to school in a different way than before,'" says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and the author of Kid Confidence. "'And I know I've been telling you all kinds of things we have to do to stay safe during this time. But now things are getting a lot better, and we can start to go back into the world without worrying so much.' " Dr. Kennedy-Moore stresses that this explicit naming of the situation is key: "It's really helpful for kids to hear you say that this has been weird and scary, but also that things are getting better." Some kids may also need to hear that this situation is very unlikely to recur. Many may now have the expectation that life will always be this unpredictable and that their schedules might never be consistent.
Teach Them to Cope
One way to help kids manage their feelings during this transition is to arm them with strategies to deal with discomfort. Some kids will be excited and eager to see other kids and experience the world again the way it was pre-pandemic. Others might feel separation anxiety, overstimulation, or residual fear of contracting COVID-19. You know what's best for your kids and should be relaxed and understanding about helping them. "For kids who have tendencies toward separation anxiety, it's going to be hard not to have Mommy and Daddy right there. For kids with social anxiety, it's going to be rough being around everybody and experiencing the stimulation of it all," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Some kids have done better with online learning because they've been able to work at a slower pace, or they feel more comfortable at home, so it's going to be an adjustment getting used to in-person instruction and the distractions of the classroom."
Teaching your child a mantra can help them deal with their biggest concerns. For a child who may feel separation anxiety upon returning to school, Dr. Kennedy suggests something in the vein of, "Mommy/Daddy/my grown-up always comes back." For a child who may feel stressed by having less freedom or having to work with other kids again, you might suggest repeating, "It's okay to be upset, and this will get easier." A mantra isn't a magical incantation, but it is "something familiar, and something that a child can rely on to soothe themself because it's in their control," says Dr. Kennedy.
In preparing your kids for post-pandemic life, Dr. Kennedy says there's value in walking through the steps of an event to help them wrap their head around each part of it. Wonder aloud about what it may be like to do things such as going to school, meeting friends, and visiting the doctor now: "Sometimes at camp or school, we might feel nervous about where to sit at lunch. What could we do when we feel like that?" or "When we visit the doctor, they might ask to look in your mouth, so you'll have to take off your mask. Do you want to talk about how that makes you feel?" Pose the scenarios casually and let your child lead the conversation with their answers. The goal here isn't to solve these problems or reassure your child that all will be well; it's to help them start to visualize what life will be like.
Making and practicing routines in the days leading up to new transitions can help too. For example, you might do a dry run of summer camp drop-off and pickup so your kids know what to expect and have an image in their mind of how things will be. (As anyone who's ever suffered from anxiety can tell you, uncertainty is a breeding ground for out-of-control worries. Eliminate that uncertainty and things tend to feel a lot more manageable.)
Another thing to practice is saying goodbye to each other—something you may not have had to do for quite a while. "Come up with a separation routine in advance, and practice it at least a couple of days before," Dr. Kennedy says. "It should be short—perhaps a kiss, a high five, and a reminder of when you're coming back."
You can also try role-playing, as both a way to prepare and a way to casually check in. "Especially for the little ones, it might be fun to play school and get the stuffed animals out to serve as students," Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. "Play is a way for kids to explore ideas and figure out the world, and it's a scenario in which they get to be in control." She suggests responding to kids' concerns with questions to help them combat the idea that they're helpless in the face of their worries. "If your kid says, 'I'm scared I won't be able to find the bathroom,' ask, 'Who would you ask for help?' You can act it out together. If they say, 'I'm worried nobody will play with me,' you might ask, 'Where could you go to play near other kids?'"
"Children look to us to see how to respond to things," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "It's called social referencing. For instance, when a kid sees a dog for the first time, they look at the dog, then they look up at their grown-up to see, 'Should I be scared here?' If the adult is calm and matter-of-fact about the dog, it makes it easier for the child to approach it without anxiety." So as you and your child reenter the world more regularly, make sure to show them with your body language, facial expressions, tone, and demeanor that what you're doing is normal and safe and that there's no need to worry. Says Parents advisor Silvia Pereira- Smith, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Charleston, South Carolina, "Even very young children can pick up the vibes of their caregivers, and they notice things like stress, anxiety, and depression." The calmer and more casual you can be, the better off your child will be.
Keep in mind that for some kids, returning to normal life might be no big deal. "Don't assume that your kid is going to be worried about it," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Your kid could be just excited or happy, or may not think twice about it either way, and we definitely don't want to burden them with our worries about their worries." Parents transferring their anxiety onto their kids is another reason why it's always best to ask open-ended questions of your child and let them guide the conversation. "If they have concerns, you should of course help them work through them," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "But you want to make sure you're not introducing concerns they never had. Instead, we want to communicate our confidence that our kids can handle this and that they'll be able to manage whatever feelings come up. If you're the person who's fighting back tears and saying, 'Oh, my darling, I'll be missing you so much all day long,' at drop-off, you are burdening your child with your anxiety. Instead, blow them a kiss, tell them you can't wait to hear about everything this afternoon, and leave."
As parents, taking care of yourself is one of the hardest tasks, despite pop-culture adages about strapping on our oxygen mask first. When kids are unusually needy or are struggling more than usual, it's even easier to forget to care for ourselves. But given that our kids are looking to us to see how to feel about the next phase of life, "it has never been more important than now to prioritize your own mental health," Dr. Pereira-Smith says.
"There are plenty of things we can all do to take care of ourselves," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Start by making sure to get enough sleep, because everything feels more overwhelming when you're exhausted. Make physical activity part of your day. Have social contact with people you care about. And let yourself have something pleasant every single day, even if it's small—use the nice shampoo, do something creative, get out in nature. Think about what refuels you, and make sure it happens."
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's July 2021 issue as "Guiding Them Through the Big Return" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here