Let’s face it: 2020 continues to be a year of loss for most of us—and for some more than others. There have been so many major losses, from loved ones to jobs and homes. And then there’s the seemingly relentless stream of smaller losses that have added up, from visits with extended family and friends to regular school to stress-free trips to the grocery store. We’re all feeling it. But for kids in particular, the loss and isolation are particularly worrying. How are our kids really doing?
The good news is kids are resilient. Much as we don’t want to see our children in pain, we also know that throughout history, children have survived—even thrived—through traumatic experiences. Being isolated from friends and extended family is hard, and we shouldn’t discount that pain. But we should also keep it in perspective: having the basics covered—shelter, food, a loving caretaker—is what matters most. And the family unit does provide socialization, especially for little ones.
Nonetheless, kids—especially the big kids—are hurting without their friends. What can grown-ups do to support their mental health and unmet needs for socialization?
Don’t center every conversation around the pandemic. Find the joy and humor in small things and bring those moments to life for your kids. Maybe at dinner, each family member shares one thing that made them laugh today. Model opportunities to convey gratitude, too. Everyone is trying their best to make the most out of a bad situation, so thank each other—in specific ways—for doing that.
At the same time, create spaces that allow family members to vent. It can be particularly useful to offer one-on-one opportunities to connect with each child every day. This might be 10 minutes on the front stoop with a special snack, or before bedtime. In these conversations, go beyond “how are you doing?” and lean into “what are you feeling?” and “what support do you need at this particular moment?” This sends the message that our needs evolve over time (sometimes from day-to-day) and that it’s okay to share those changes in need if comfortable. And creating the space for one-on-one conversations reinforces for your kids that you’re available to them, even with so much going on.
Encourage children to reflect on their experiences. This time in our lives is unusual, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of silver linings. What habits from these pandemic times do they want to keep once things return to “normal”? If family discussions don’t yield much, consider shared journal time, which can encourage everyone to release stresses that they don’t want to communicate verbally. These free Imagine Journals are designed for classrooms, but they can work at home, too.
Unplug from technology. Try some old-school games—board games, word games, improv, whatever you like—to get silly and foster personal connections within the family.
But do plug in when the time is right. Are your kids into gaming? If they’re not, now might be a good time to try it. Why on earth would we recommend more screen time right now? Because games like Fortnite and Minecraft offer opportunities to connect virtually with friends while engaging in a practical activity together, which might work better for some kids than just talking over Zoom or FaceTime.
Go outside, even when it’s cold. Since life with Covid-19 safety precautions has to be sustainable for a while, we do need to find safe social outlets for the kids. Outside playdates and hangouts are a good option, and if you trust that your big kids are being careful, it’s reasonable to let them meet up with a few friends outdoors on their own, so they get the benefits of seeing friends and having some independence. Don’t let the cold weather stop you, either: Stock up on extra winter layers for the kids so they can get outside even when the weather is rough. (Pro tip: Check your town’s local “buy/sell/trade” or “buy nothing” groups on Facebook to find inexpensive or even free hand-me-downs from neighbors—great for those seasonal layers that they grow out of every year.)
Use the mail! If the kids can’t connect with friends outside, take advantage of good old-fashioned snail mail. Load them up with paper, stickers, and postal supplies and encourage them to write to their friends, cousins, or even your high school best friend’s kids who live across the country.
Investigate your local recreation opportunities. Finally, while many extracurriculars aren’t operating as normal, take advantage of the existing opportunities—like low-contact sports, dance, and outdoor recreation—that are still happening in your city or town.
It’s true that the average kid has had their share of disappointments since the pandemic began, from canceled school plays to missed athletic competitions. And many children have suffered much deeper losses. Like the rest of us, some kids will be coping better than others. If your children need more support than you can provide at home, consider reaching out to local mental health services. Sometimes a third party support can make all the difference.
“Being isolated from friends and extended family is hard, and we shouldn’t discount that pain. But we should also keep it in perspective: having the basics covered—shelter, food, a loving caretaker—is what matters most.”
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