As vaccination rates continue to inch higher and higher across the country and across Pennsylvania, it seems that a day doesn’t pass without a headline talking about the impending “return to normal” that is seemingly right around the corner.
For many, the excitement is palpable. Restaurants are reopening. Summer picnics, virtually impossible last year, are coming back. After more than a year of lockdown, social distancing, and other stresses, it’s clear that the United States is in the full throes of reopening.
But it is important to note that a return to normal may not be as simple as rolling back restrictions. For many, COVID has been a traumatic experience.
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Although the pandemic has been a collective trauma, we experience it individually. Some are navigating acute grief following the death of a loved one, or many loved ones. Some are struggling with isolation, depression, or anxiety. And all of these may be present at the same time, bringing internal friction as we hold contradictory thoughts and feelings.
There will be "after-shocks" from the year-long "earthquake" that this pandemic has been for us. We need to be honest with ourselves, our families, our schools and communities and acknowledge that it will take some time and effort to recover from them as we begin to shift back to old routines—for adults, children, and adolescents.
With this in mind, below we offer some advice that you can use to help your child ease into life following the pandemic, this summer and into the school year ahead.
Helping Your Child Reacclimate to Life After Covid
We need to hold space for each individual to make their own meaning of the past year. The only wrong way to approach this current period is to ignore it. An obsession with "getting back to normal" ignores all we have experienced and all that we have learned about ourselves, our families and learning. In fact, if family life or how we "do school" goes "back to normal" we all deserve a failing grade. Let's move forward toward better, in parenting and learning.
For those of us whose emotional wounds are “superficial”, we may require relatively little time to rebound and fully re-engage in life. But for those who have suffered more significant trauma—such as overwhelming concern that they would contract the virus, the loss of a loved one, or the feeling that part of their life has been taken away by the pandemic—recovering from this event may be more involved. They may feel a sense of resistance about resuming their pre-COVID lives—which is the essence of re-entry anxiety.
Wherever your child is on this spectrum of thoughts and emotions as you move forward, there are several steps you can take to help rebuild their emotional resilience. Below are a number of strategies and tips you can use to evaluate your child’s level of reopening anxiety and also help address it.
1. Separate caution from fear.
Anytime you see that your child is under stress or experiencing anxiety about something—whether that be changing schools, entering a new grade, trying something new, or, yes, re-entry after COVID—a helpful exercise is to sit down with them and write a list of everything that they are concerned about. Then, you can separate those concerns into two columns: Those that they can control, and those that they can’t control.
This is helpful for a number of reasons.
First, it gives your child a sense of agency over their own life—especially if they realize that there is a lot more in their control than out of it. Hand washing, mask wearing, avoiding friends who are knowingly sick—these are all things within their control. While they do not offer 100% protection, it has been demonstrated over the past year that they are all extremely effective means of protecting oneself from the virus.
Second, this opens the door for a discussion that, in life, there are simply some things outside of our control. While that can be scary, it’s an important realization for all of us to make, as it allows us to focus on those things that we can control.
2. Teach them to control their consumption of media.
Media plays an important role in our lives as both a source of entertainment and information. But as caregivers it is important that we educate our children about how to consume media.
The first step is to educate them about how much is too much. For example, at what point does watching the news turn away from being informative and toward being a stressor? Having the ability to recognize signs of media burnout in themselves is an important skill for your children to have throughout life.
Likewise, we must teach them to evaluate their sources. Are the websites they are visiting and the publications they are reading reliable sources of news? Or are they designed to generate clicks by using catchy headlines, hyperbole, and by stretching the truth?
3. Take small steps.
Less is more. If your child is struggling with re-entry anxiety, start by encouraging them to take small steps.
In my line of work, we call this “exposure therapy” because you’re exposing manageable levels of anxiety into your daily life. Do not let yourself end it early or give in to unrealistic anxiety—complete the step (or half step!) and then set a new goal. Over the course of a few weeks (or the summer) these small steps can add up to significant progress.
Start sooner rather than later. Take steps, even baby steps, to address things that cause concern. It’s important to expect a certain amount of discomfort in the process and it’s equally important to work through it.
4. Encourage and facilitate physical health.
While it might seem like a cliche, the simple truth is that taking care of your physical health and wellbeing are often very effective means for controlling anxiety of all sorts. Nothing helps more than getting a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, and balanced nutrition. When you feel good physically, it is that much easier to feel good mentally.
Supporting Your Child Through Reopening
As caregivers, it’s our job to provide support, structure, and encouragement for our children. By being empathetic and validating their feelings and concerns, we can go far in easing them back into social interactions and life after COVID.
At the same time, if you feel that your child’s levels of anxiety are high, there is absolutely no shame in seeking professional intervention. Speak with your child’s school administration to understand what support they may be able to offer, such as a meeting with a school counselor, psychologist, or advisor.