When the COVID-19 pandemic hit this past spring, billions of children around the globe were abruptly sent home from school — an anchor in so many ways. Kids have been cut off from friends and loved ones, and yanked away from daily activities and passions. Many have watched their loved ones get sick or have come down with the virus themselves. It has been ... a lot.
Now, as another unprecedented academic year swings into high gear, children are facing more of the same “new normal” that no one asked for.
“We don’t know how long we’re going to be living in this very strange period. For some kids, that mean that they’ve adjusted and things are a little bit easier to manage,” said Kimberly Canter, a child psychologist at Nemours Children’s Health System. “For other kids, that just means this gets harder and harder every day.”
HuffPost Parents spoke to several experts about simple, concrete ways we can help support our children during this upcoming school year. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Regularly check in with them about what they think is happening with COVID-19.
Talking to your child about what they know (or believe they know) about the pandemic is a crucial first step to understanding where they’re at emotionally, said Canter, who developed an online intervention to help kids struggling with COVID-19 stress. (The intervention is currently available to Nemours patients only, but she shared some of the broader concepts below.)
You’re looking to understand their specific concerns, she said.
“Are there things they are hearing that are frightening them that are not true?” she asked. “Are there things they are hearing that are frightening them that are true? And how can we address that?”
If your child brings up something you don’t have an answer to, or there’s no answer to, be honest. Tell them you’ll seek out accurate information together, and reassure them that they’re not facing this alone.
Parents should also pay attention to any physical, emotional or social changes they notice in their children, said Ron Stolberg, a licensed child psychologist and professor at Alliant International University.
“Typical things to look for are significant weight gain or weight loss not related to normal development, rejecting long-standing friends, major social withdrawal, and with teens, we also add unaccounted-for spending,” Stolberg said.
Your check-ins can be brief, but they should be consistent. Parents may have done this more at the start of the pandemic, when everything was strange and new. Don’t let up now.
2. Help them identify their emotions.
Emotional intelligence is a learned skill that is rooted in a person’s ability to identify what they are feeling. Parents can help their children do that, Canter said. It’s really about noticing their feelings and learning how to name them.
This can start even if kids are young. Simple mood meters — red for angry, blue for sad, green for calm and yellow for happy — can help young kiddos track where they are and give voice to those feelings.
3. Build trust with their teachers.
Even if you live in an area where your child is in the classroom five days a week, this is an academic year like no other. One simple way to emotionally support your child — and your child’s teacher — is to help them feel “safe and connected to their school communities,” said Jeanne Huybrechts, chief academic officer at Stratford School, a network of private schools in California. That is true whether classes are in person, hybrid or starting the year off remotely.
“Reach out to your child’s teacher and introduce yourself and your family,” Huybrechts said. “Share family stories, values, your family’s living situation this fall, your child’s feelings about the return to school.”
More than ever this year, open communication with your child’s teachers is essential.
4. For at least five minutes a day, hang out with them however they want.
Parents sometimes hate to hear this tip because at the end of a long, exhausting day, many parents just (understandably) want to collapse, said Jill Ehrenreich-May, a psychologist and director of the Child and Adolescent Mood and Anxiety Program at the University of Miami.
But she recommends taking at least five minutes a day, every day, to just hang out together with the kids.
“Do something — not on screens — that your child wants to do with you,” Ehrenreich-May said. Follow their lead, and really try to connect through joy. They need it.
5. Remind them of what they can control.
Many children are struggling under the weight of so many unknowns. We don’t know when school will be “normal” again. We don’t know when they’ll be able to freely hug grandparents or friends. We don’t know if they’ll get sick, or if we will get sick — and how serious it might be. That’s difficult for anyone to deal with, particularly kids.
Parents can help by focusing them on what they can control right now.
“You might not be able to control if there’s a vaccine, but you can control things like washing your hands and wearing a mask,” Canter said. Similarly, kids may not be able to control when, say, soccer starts up again, but they can schedule Zoom hangouts with their teammates. And so on.
And here is something parents can control, to a certain extent: They can model the type of resiliency and self-care they hope to see in their children. That means parents need to find ways to take care of themselves.
“If I expect them to be calm and handle this really not normal situation, well, I probably need to express my own emotions appropriately,” Ehrenreich-May said.
Stolberg agreed, suggesting that parents follow a healthy sleep routine, eat nutritious food, avoid caffeine and alcohol, exercise outside if it’s safe to do so and stay connected to people, even if it’s digitally. He also recommended mindfulness exercises, such as breathing, meditation and yoga.
“You cannot be your best parent if you are not healthy and mentally prepared for the job,” he said.
At the end of the day, it’s not about pretending everything is totally OK. It’s about modeling emotional intelligence yourself and trying to show your kiddo how to live with uncertainty, while also trying to make the best of this unprecedented time.