Reopening should be so great. After a year of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, kids are going back to school. Back to sports, band, theater, their friends and all those things that make being a kid of any age so much fun.
But it’s not that easy.
For one thing, the pandemic is not over. Infections, hospitalizations and deaths drop, only to spike up again. Schools open, then close. Events are scheduled, then canceled. Millions of people are vaccinated every day, but warned to remain cautious.
“This is tough. There’s still a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, and people generally don’t do well with instability,” said Luke Raymond, LCPC, director of Behavioral Health for OSF HealthCare.
Managing expectations for reopening
Perhaps the biggest concern for parents is how our kids will fare. How can we best help them prepare for a return to normal? Especially when things are not normal yet – and might never be the normal all of us remember?
For starters, we can give them room to express themselves.
“Cultivate an environment of openness,” Luke said. “They’re going through a lot. Focus on grace and empathy first. Recognize that while kids are usually good at adapting to situations, there will probably be some bumps in the road. So give a little more leeway. Be a little more patient. Give them a little grace, and give yourself some, too.”
Then we can help them manage their expectations. When we are deprived of something we enjoy, it’s human nature to build the memory of that experience into something even greater. The desire for instant gratification also looms.
“For kids, everything is viewed in the short term,” Luke said. “They can struggle putting things in the context of the long term.
“Tell them, ‘You may expect this will be perfect right from the start, but it’s going to take a while. Think about where you were a month ago and where you are now. Let’s build on those small successes till you get back to the level you remember.’”
Re-establishing in-person relationships
For example, consider a child who has always been a social butterfly. Even if they’ve stayed in virtual touch with friends via social media and other digital platforms, they may have anxiety about resuming face-to-face contact. They might react by withdrawing. Or they might go the other way and socialize with reckless abandon.
Virtual classrooms have allowed our kids to continue their educations in spite of school shutdowns. “At-home” learning models are likely to grow, even as brick-and-mortar schools reopen on a bigger scale. Some kids may prefer to continue computerized education – and that would dovetail with the work-from-home trend that has developed in the adult world.
“Historically, we would have said it’s important to be in school to prepare kids for a world where they have to interact socially,” Luke said. “That might not be the case anymore. We might be on a path where those kids can completely isolate and do OK, professionally.
“But we still need to interact as people. We still need to grow. And discomfort is important. We need to be pushed outside our comfort levels. The extent to which we deal with discomfort is how we grow and learn.”
Have honest and open communication
Whatever situation arises, we need to communicate with our kids. That means talking, but it also means setting a good example for them to observe and follow. And be honest. After all, we adults are trying to navigate this journey, too.
“There’s great value in kids seeing genuine expression,” Luke said. “We should demonstrate that it’s OK to be in pain caused by the pandemic. It’s important we show kids how to navigate through that pain so they become stronger.”
Another part of communication is listening and watching. Be aware and watch for signs that our kids might be struggling to adapt.
How are they functioning in school? How is their mood? Are they sleeping more or less than they did previously? What about their eating habits?
“If we see differences in basic functioning levels, those can be red flags that they might need intervention,” Luke said.