The past year meant so many things kids look forward to were disrupted, postponed or outright cancelled.
With vaccinations ramping up, the final months of the coronavirus pandemic are now (hopefully) in sight. Things like playdates, camps, trips, and more are slowly becoming possible again. It’s an exciting time that brings its own novel challenges. Of course it’s hard for kids (and everyone else) not to be impatient for everything to be back to “normal.” But after so much disappointment, some kids may also be feeling more anxiety than excitement.
How can parents open the door to optimism without setting kids up for unsafe behavior or a big let-down if things don’t go as planned?
As things improve, the activities kids loved will become possible again. That said, it may be a while before your child can go see her favorite band in concert or have a big slumber party.
Help kids make plans that are within reach. Help kids get excited (and avoid disappointment) by making plans that are unlikely to be cancelled: Having a meal outside with a friend when things warm up, going to the pool, or signing up for outdoor camp this summer.
Talk it through. Help kids avoid disappointment by helping them understand what they’re reading, hearing and seeing in the news. The vaccines are working and things are improving, but it will still be a while before many pre-pandemic activities can come back. The more kids understand what can happen when (for example, it might be okay to go to an outdoor sporting event soon, but it will likely be some time before we can go to the movies), the easier it will be for them to manage their expectations and avoid being disappointed.
Encourage daydreaming. Being practical about short-term plans is important, but when it comes to the future encouraging kids to dream big — A trip to Disney World! Going to sleepaway camp! A week at the beach! — can help them feel more optimistic and excited.
Managing difficult emotions
Of course, as anyone who’s lived through the past year knows, though things are improving, setbacks can — and probably will — still happen. Part of helping kids navigate this uncertain phase is making sure they have the skills to manage their emotions when things don’t go as planned.
Listen to how kids are feeling and provide validation. Let kids know that you understand how hard this is for them, even if what they’re upset about seems small to you.
Model coping skills. Talk to kids about how you deal with stress and disappointment, and help them build toolkits of their own (favorite music, calming activities, calls with loved ones) to get through tough moments. Remember, kids are resilient. Know that this experience is helping them build coping skills for the future.
Focus on the future. Validate your child’s feelings, but don’t dwell on the let-down. Instead, try redirecting your child by talking about or making new plans. For example, “I know you’re feeling really disappointed that we can’t visit Grandma yet. I’m sad, too. But hey, let’s FaceTime her and talk about all the fun stuff we’re going to do when we can visit!”
Help for kids struggling with anxiety or depression
Kids who struggle with anxiety or depression may have a more difficult time feeling excited and engaged as the pandemic ends. Parents can help by taking feelings seriously, and getting kids help if and when they need it.
Be supportive. Try to build empathy and understanding by putting yourself in their shoes and listening to what they’re saying without judgment. Again, validating their emotions will make them more likely to view you as an ally, which means they’ll be more likely to come to you when they need help. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say, but it does mean letting them know that you are listening and you care. So say, “I can tell you’re frustrated” or, “I hear this is difficult for you.”
Provide perspective. Kids who are anxious or depressed are prone to catastrophizing (jumping to worst-case scenarios) and generalizing (assuming that one thing going wrong means everything else probably will, too). It may feel like a cancelled plan or news about a slow vaccine rollout means things will never get better, but that isn’t actually the case. Emphasize to kids that though it may take time, things are improving and they have plenty to look forward to, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now.
Avoid over-reassurance. It may sound counterintuitive, but if your child is having trouble feeling optimistic about getting back to regular school, or a real basketball season, it’s better to avoid giving too much reassurance. Part of finding a way back to feeling excitement about new plans and better days is learning how to be okay with looking forward to something, even if there’s a chance it may change or even not happen.
Kids can come to rely on reassurance from parents — and when a parent isn’t able to give them complete reassurance that things will go exactly as expected, their anxiety can worsen. Instead, encourage kids to make plans and think of future fun while acknowledging that, yes, there is still uncertainty.
Get help. Things are improving, but this has been an extraordinarily difficult time for many, many kids (and parents). If you notice your child’s anxious feelings or depressed mood has begun interfering with their ability to handle everyday situations or prompts them to avoid things that most people their age enjoy — or they are having thoughts of suicide — it’s time to get help. Reach out to your pediatrician or a mental health provider and make an appointment right away.