“We’re wanting a child to run, but in my view, children almost need to walk again in terms of negotiating life,” said Suniya Luthar, a professor emeritus at Teachers College at Columbia University and co-founder of Authentic Connections, an organization 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 targeted 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 reopen. “A certain amount of inertia can set in after being in this state of paralysis,” said Tim Cavell, a psychologist and professor at the University of Arkansas.
Start by determining where a child is right now, then come up with a realistic transition plan, said Ryan DeLapp, a psychologist with the Montefiore Health System in New York. 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?” DeLapp reminds kids that even President Biden had to map out a plan for his first 100 days in office. Then the psychologist will say: “How things are now may not be how they are later, and things can get better if we continue to practice.”
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. “That’s called an expectancy violation,” DeLapp said, and it can boost a child’s confidence and sense of self-efficacy.
Give them something to hold on to with certainty
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.
Address social awkwardness and insecurity
Many children have a lower tolerance for emotional discomfort and are feeling self-conscious, whether it’s because their weight changed, they forgot how to enter a conversation, or they worry their friends are no longer their friends.
Children also may have lost connections from before the pandemic, which could make it harder for them to trust one another, said Brad Weinstein, co-author of “Hacking School Discipline.” “I think there will be a breakdown in their ability to coexist and work with the emotions of their peers while managing their own emotions,” he said. “They might tailspin from things that they would have recovered from easily before.”
To help a child with the social piece, review basic social skills. Morin will tell kids: “If you’re frustrated, then it’s probably not the best time to have a conversation. If you’re irritable, your fuse isn’t as long, so you need to ask yourself how you can lengthen your fuse a little bit.” That might mean doing a breathing exercise, giving themselves a self-hug or watching a funny video.
Remind children to make eye contact and take turns talking. “I use the analogy of volleyball,” DeLapp said. “You keep the ball on your side for three taps, and then send it over.” The three taps are about elaborating on responses, giving more information and sharing details. Sending the ball back over is about asking open-ended questions and keeping the dialogue going.
Prioritize fun, humor, play and connection
By the end of their first week back in the school building this spring, some students had their heads down, said James Allrich, principal of Argyle Middle School in Silver SpringMd. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m tired of being here tired,’ ” he said. “It was, ‘I need more rest’ tired.’ ”
As exhausted children negotiate fuller days, adults will need to crank up the joy and connection. Allrich added a long wellness break that includes recess and cohort time when students can play games together. He got hula hoops and organized a competition for students. Then, he entered the contest. “I thought I could hula hoop,” he said, “but they must make hula hoops different these days.”
Children are going to need that type of funny, playful interaction with adults, said Mona Delahooke, author of “Beyond Behaviors.” “The highest form of safety in humans comes from play, and the best neural exercise is playful engagement,” she said.
Caregivers will need to feel nurtured, too. As Luthar said: “They’re going to need the same loving support as the children.” She suggests that parents reach out to a couple of people whom they trust and reinvest in those relationships, or consider joining a support group with a facilitator, who can bring gentleness and tenderness to the experience.
Help them practice self-compassion
A high-achieving teenager was upset that his GPA had dropped from a 3.9 to a 3.5 during the pandemic, so DeLapp started asking him questions, including: “When is the last time you had experience going through a pandemic?” and, “How often have you had to teach yourself to do things on your own?” He wasn’t trying to dismiss the boy’s concerns; he wanted him to appreciate that the novelty of the situation demanded tremendous adjustment.
When you talk to your child, listen for the “yeah, but.” Children will tell DeLapp: “’It’s been hard, but there are other people doing better.’ There’s this disqualifying, more negative thinking that gets accentuated after the but,” he said. Say: “We’ll get to that, but let’s focus on what’s before the but. How has that complicated your goals or expectations? What are the feelings you’ve had?”
Children can cheer themselves on by writing themselves a kind letter or by picking a catchphrase, such as, “You’ve got this,” or, “All I can do is my best,” Morin said. They also can soften self-criticism by using sentence starters such as, “I had a harder time because,” or, “It makes sense that.”
“It’s not saying that grades don’t matter,” DeLapp said. “It’s being able to say: ‘Yes, I struggled, and my grades are lower, and let me have a more balanced picture of why this happened.’ ”
Work from the outside in to reactivate interests
Emotions typically move people to take action. But if children struggle with depression or low motivation, they may need to work from the “outside in” instead of the “inside out,” DeLapp said. By doing what they used to enjoy, children may be able to rekindle dormant interests.
Simply adhering to a schedule can have an activating effect. “Going through the rigmarole of getting dressed, taking a shower and engaging in the world can cultivate a vitality that wasn’t there, because it was trumped by passivity,” said Rick Wormeli, an education consultant and author of “Fair Isn’t Always Equal.”
When children resume their routines, they’ll also experience micro-connections that they might have missed, such as “seeing someone on the way to lunch, riding the bus, talking to a teacher who isn’t their teacher or seeing the person who greet them at the door,” Weinstein said. These interactions are socially rewarding and may motivate them to seek out more.
If something sparks a child’s curiosity, take it to the next level, said Joe Mazza, principal of Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua, NY For example, when Mazza saw students animatedly discussing Brood X cicadas during recess, he worked with the parent-teacher association to create a pop-up cicada research tent. “The idea is to build on kids’ excitement and create opportunities for them to come together, laugh and share,” he said.
As children engage and invest more fully in their daily experiences, they’ll begin to find value and meaning in them. It may take longer for them to see the bigger picture or feel a grand sense of purpose, and that’s okay. As Morin said, purpose doesn’t have to be about saving the world or making other people happy; “purpose can be having a reason to get out of bed, taking care of yourself and doing the best you can with whatever cards you’re dealt.”
Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. she tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.