How to help kids socialize in a post-lockdown world
It's been 19 months since the first case of COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, and since that time, a lot has changed. Cities, states, and entire countries endured rolling shutdowns — or lockdowns. Business shuttered and schools were closed, and life as we knew it changed. From mask mandates to social distancing, every action and behavior was altered. But as infection rates begin to drop, we are making a comeback. Restaurants, movie theaters, and malls are (now) open. Business is (more or less) back, and this fall, most children will return to the classroom. In-person education will resume. But what does life look like in a post-pandemic world, particularly for the youngest members of our society?
"The COVID-19 pandemic affected our kids in many ways that we don't yet fully understand," Laura Lofy — a licensed psychologist and school psychologist — tells Upworthy. "Some desperately missed their classmates. Others fell behind on schoolwork, and some became riddled with anxiety and fear. Many regressed on skills they had developed or lost momentum in areas in which they had been making progress." And one of those areas is interpersonal, i.e. many children are struggling socially, and this has the potential to have a long-lasting impact on our children and the next generation.
"Since March 2020, there's been a significant increase in reported youth anxiety, particularly in relation to fears of the coronavirus, along with greater frustration, boredom, insomnia and inattention," an article on The Conversation explains. "Results of a survey from summer 2020 found that over 45% of adolescents reported symptoms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress." Resuming face-to-face interactions is also a major stressor. But what can we do as parents and caregivers to help our children progress? How can we help them (re)acclimate to life? The first thing we should do is temper our (and their) expectations.
"It's important to have realistic expectations and recognize upfront that this is going to be hard," pediatric psychologist Kate Eshleman tells the Cleveland Clinic. "Kids haven't had to share with others, and they haven't had to talk to unfamiliar adults," Dr. Eshleman says. "You may see some shyness or kids responding to other people in ways that aren't typical of how they act around their families." But these obstacles can be overcome, with time, encouragement, and a bit of guidance.
"I think the most valuable thing that parents can do is ask open-ended questions, listen carefully to what their kids are saying, validate their experiences and feelings, and revisit the topic often and from different angles," Lofy says. "Including kids in conversations to explore their experiences and understanding of what happened will also be really helpful."
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Not sure how (or where) to begin? Sharing one's own reflections can be a good jumping off point. "You could say something like, 'You know, it's kind of weird going back to work. On one hand, I am excited to see my friends, but on the other hand, I kind of liked being home with my family. What about you and school? How do you feel about going back?' I highly recommend that parents practice asking open-ended questions, using starters like 'tell me about...' and "what was that like for you,'" Lofy adds. "Give them room to speak and then use validation to convey understanding."
Of course, there are other ways prepare your child for post-pandemic socialization — and post-pandemic life. Start small. Birthday parties and trips to Disney may be overwhelming but an ice cream playdate could be perfect. Give them conversation starters. Communication may be tricky at first, but having ideas can help. Dr. Eshleman and the Cleveland Clinic suggest creating a list of questions and talking points. "Come up with a handful of topics they can ask their friends about in person. Arming them with age-appropriate questions (i.e. 'Did you go on vacation this summer?' and 'What's your favorite thing for lunch?') will help kids feel better prepared to converse face to face." You should also be sympathetic and empathetic. Use validating language and acknowledge their struggles, and take things slow, particularly with toddlers and young children who have had very little or no pre-COVID interactions.
"Hire a babysitter or enlist the help of an extended family member to watch your child while you run errands or even just work in the yard, which will give them practice in being apart from you," the Cleveland Clinic explains.
That said, this approach will not work for everyone. Some children are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, and not everyone is ready for social re-entry — and that's okay. Getting back to "normal" will take time. But according to Tiiu Lutter, a licensed therapist and the co-founder of Thriving Families Center, these fears should be addressed sooner than later.
"When left alone, anxiety gets worse, so the sooner it is faced and handled, the quicker it goes away." '
But what can you do? According to Lofy, you should acknowledge their fears, normalize their feelings, you should help them assess the situation — and weigh the real versus perceived risk — and come up with a plan to move forward. Having executable steps helps.
"If your child experiences social anxieties, you should start a conversation about their fears," Lofy says. "What is it they are concerned about? Put their fears into a 'normal' context. Reassure them their feelings are normal and that other kids are nervous as well. They are not alone in feeling anxious. You should also have a plan for their anxiety. Prime your child for a social event. Talk with them about what they will be doing and who will be there. Practice your deep breathing before the event, and before you get out to the car practice your strategies, remind your child they will be safe and you want them to have fun."
If your child is still unable to move forward, you may want to enlist the help of a trained professional. Clinical psychologists, school psychologists, and child therapists have tools that we as parents do not. Another great resource, particularly for teens, is Crisis Text Line. This is free, 24/7 service puts your child in touch with a trained crisis counselor immediately, via text.
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