As summer swings into high gear, the United States is in a moment that seemed all but impossible months ago: COVID-19 cases and deaths have plummeted, vaccines are available to any adult (or teen or tween) who wants them and businesses have generally opened up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says it’s OK to go mask-free in most settings if you’re fully vaccinated.
But for families with younger children, it’s not totally a time to celebrate. Kids under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccination yet, which means they still need to mask up — and children get that they’re not totally in the clear. While many kids are jumping enthusiastically into the summer, others feel pretty nervous about the idea of just going back out into the world after a year of diligently doing what grown-ups asked of them in order to stay healthy and safe (which is very similar to what adults are going through, as they’re also reacting very differently to these recent changes).
“Children are likely going to feel at times uncomfortable as changes continue to happen and that is OK!” psychologist Jill Emanuele, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center with the Child Mind Institute, told HuffPost.
The key is to help them make sense of those feelings, and find ways to adjust to our latest version of “normal” as the pandemic continues to evolve. Here’s how.
1. First, simply help kids identify when they’re feeling uncomfortable
One of the biggest things parents can do to help children of all ages through this next stretch of the pandemic is to help them identify when they’re feeling uneasy about something — whether it’s adjusting to a new public health recommendation or partaking in a particular activity.
That’s a big part of developing emotional intelligence, which is a skill that will help them not just in this particular moment but throughout their lives. Learning to recognize feelings as they arise and put a name to them is something that many adults still struggle with.
“It is important to teach them to recognize when they have uncomfortable thoughts and feelings,” Emanuele said, “and to communicate this to an adult who can help them manage their discomfort.”
Also, it is important to simply acknowledge that change — even when it’s positive change — can feel really hard.
“Going into lockdown, being virtual, going hybrid, figuring out ‘Can we visit relatives? Yes, we can this way!’ … all of those changes, even if parents did the very best job they could of explaining them, have still made it — to say the least — an unstable and unpredictable time for children,” Tamar Chansky, author of “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety,” told HuffPost.
“It’s essential for our mental health, and our children’s mental health,” she added, “to acknowledge that.”
2. Ask specific questions about what’s making them uneasy
There are any number of reasons some kids might feel uncomfortable as they move through this next phase of the pandemic. Perhaps they’re not totally sure about taking their masks off outdoors in certain settings — even if a trusted adult has told them it’s OK. Maybe they’re a tween or teen and they’re nervous about getting vaccinated. Perhaps they’re going to summer camp, and they’re feeling a bit uneasy about how they’ll stay safe and healthy.
“You want to understand what is making them so reluctant so you can address it,” Emanuele said — and she recommends asking specific questions.
Then really listen to your child’s concerns, Emanuele said, “and tell them that their concerns are understandable.” At the same time, be armed with information so that while you’re validating their feelings, you’re also arming them with the most accurate, up-to-date information you’ve got. If you’re unsure, tell them you’ll look it up together.
Also, it’s OK to bring up your own experiences — in a developmentally appropriate way, of course. For example, if you have a tween who is wondering about getting vaccinated, you might also want to share a bit about what getting vaccinated was like for you, Emanuele said.
3. Make it clear that you’re in charge and that you’ve done your research
Because there’s been such nonstop change since the pandemic began, it continues to be important for parents to “share a narrative” about where we are in this particular moment. That narrative should be “digestible to our kids,” Chansky said, “and make it clear that we are in charge, and that we are there to protect them.”
Explain to your child that these changes aren’t just happening on a whim, but they’re really rooted in expert recommendations. Tell them: “We talked to the pediatrician about this,” Chansky recommended. Or: “We’ve been following the news so we can make good choices for our family.”
“Kids often feel like they’re somehow responsible for figuring things out, which can cause anxiety,” Chansky said. “It’s important to tell them: ‘We are on this. We’re getting the information we need. And you can ask us any questions you may have.’”
4. Model the behavior you’d like to see
Children really do learn from watching their parents, Emanuele said, so in addition to giving them space to talk about what’s making them uneasy, asking questions and arming them with the best information you can, it’s also important to model the kind of behavior you’d like to see.
For example, many fully vaccinated parents are continuing to wear masks in public settings because they want to show their younger kids that they expect them to do the same.
“Parents are still the front line for kids interpreting their world,” Chansky said.
Ultimately if after helping kids identify their feelings, tackling their questions, providing evidence for why certain changes are happening and modeling the kind of behavior you’d like to see, your child still really seems to be struggling in a way that interferes with their daily function, you should absolutely reach out to a pediatrician or mental health professional. Anxiety is very treatable — when kids get the support they need.
“There are lots of things that can be done to help kids along,” Chansky said.