After more than a year of wearing masks, virtual learning, and keeping their distance, kids are going back to in-school learning. But for some children, the pandemic has left a serious emotional and developmental impact. Activities that would have felt safe and normal pre-pandemic, like making new friends, being in a crowd, going to school, and eating at a restaurant, can now evoke nervousness and apprehension. Children who were once outgoing and eager to try new things are now shy, fearful, and reluctant to leave home. Navigating them out of this anxiety and back to in-school learning needs to be done in a mindful and sympathetic way. How parents can help depends partly on the children's age. Here are ways to help them cope, by age group:
Very young children may not remember pre-pandemic life and only know mask-wearing and the fear of an invisible danger. Luckily, children this young can re-adjust much easier than older children or adults. They will look to you for cues; start by being a reassuring and calm figure. Introduce them to post-pandemic experiences much like you would introduce them to any new situation. Be transparent and answer any questions they may have in an age-appropriate and easy-to-understand way.
Children this age can clearly remember pre-pandemic life and are old enough to fear for their personal safety. Now that they've spent more than a year being constantly reminded to stay away from others, keep their masks on, and wash their hands, going back to the "normal" they once desired is now causing them adult-like levels of re-entry anxiety. Start by taking things slow; increase normal activities little by little in order to increase their comfort levels gradually. Have them spend more time with friends outside, take them to the museum, and overall practice being around other people. If they are reluctant to leave you, set a positive and encouraging tone, celebrate small wins, and encourage independence by practicing small periods of separation before they have to go to full days at school. At home, keep a nice, predictable routine for mealtimes and bedtimes to help them feel secure during this process. And remember, children pick up on their parent's moods; if you are anxious, their anxiety will likely be exacerbated. Take care of yourself and your mental health as well during this time.
Tweens and Teens
Some tweens and teens might be eager to start school and hang out with friends again. For others, especially those who had anxiety or a hard time at school pre-pandemic, going back to school can be stressful and scary. Even worse, if they lost a loved one or had a change in their family's financial status during the pandemic, re-entry could be even more difficult. They may not have any say over when they go back to in-school learning, but for any extra-curricular activities, consider allowing your child the choice to say whether or not they are ready to go back to those and at what pace. Letting them have that control will help them feel more in control overall. To help ease their anxieties, validate their feelings first then be a source of reassurance and education (but not lectures). And as with any tween/teen, pre- or post-pandemic, make sure to keep the lines of communication open and maintain family routines to stay close.
The tips for how to help children navigate back to some pre-pandemic activities like in-school learning can really be applied to children at any time. Every kid develops at their own pace and internalizes experiences differently. As parents, we should cut a reassuring and supportive figure in their life. Don't dismiss feelings, but rather encourage open communication and understanding. Let them know that no matter what they, or we, go through in life, we are in it together.