When the pandemic prevented a young aspiring cartoonist from attending art camp last summer, she was devastated. But when her mother told her she could go this year, the 12-year-old balked. “I’ll just stay home,” she shrugged. “They’ll probably have to shut down again.” Although some children will dive into school and activities with enthusiasm as the pandemic lets up thanks to an increase in vaccinations, others will be more guarded.
“We’re wanting a child to run, but in my view, children almost need to walk again in terms of negotiating life,” said professor emerita at Teachers College at Columbia University Suniya Luthar, and co-founder of Authentic Connections, an organisation devoted to fostering resilience. “We need to ensure they’re not unhappy, distressed or nervous about meeting friends before we can expect them to get passionate about the saxophone again.”
With time and targetted support, even the most apprehensive child can once again experience full and joyful engagement. Here are six ways parents and caregivers can ease kids back into life and help them regain a sense of purpose.
CREATE A REALISTIC PLAN FOR TRANSITIONING
Children may feel both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the idea of resuming a more structured routine as life begins to re-open. “A certain amount of inertia can set in after being in this state of paralysis,” said psychologist and professor at the University of Arkansas Tim Cavell.
Start by determining where a child is right now, then come up with a realistic transition plan, said psychologist with the Montefiore Health System in New York Ryan DeLapp.
Ask questions such as, “What are the emotions you’re having right now?” “What are your expectations?” and “Where do you expect your comfort level to be in the next month if you just stick it out and give it your best shot?”
Once children have a plan in place, assess their progress weekly. If they continue to be anxious, avoidant, flat or discouraged, they may need support from a mental health professional. But things could go better than expected.
GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO WITH CERTAINTY
Children may resist making plans, because life has been unpredictable, and they don’t want to risk disappointment. As Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind and author of 13 Things Strong Kids Do: Think Big, Feel Good, Act Brave, Amy Morin said, “the rules have changed 800 times, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will be able to do something”.
Model cautious optimism, and let your child see you push yourself. “It might just be that you’re getting coffee with a friend, and say, ‘I was looking forward to this, but now that it’s here, it feels weird and I’m nervous’,” Morin said. Afterward, you can tell your child, “You know, that was more fun than I thought it would be.”
To foster hope, give children the gift of anticipation. Ask them what they’ve missed or what they look forward to doing, then design an activity around their interests. Plan something you believe can happen, then talk about it regularly to build excitement. My 13-year-old son loves baseball and wants to see the Washington Nationals play again, for example, so we bought tickets to attend a game after he’s vaccinated.