Supporting our children through the next wave
Guest poster Karen Libber Fishbein, MSW, LCSW is a Philadelphia-based clinical social worker and mother of two girls.
Here we are in December of 2020, ending a year with large-scale health, racial and political crises. Our children sense the daily tension and they feel the growing tedium. Life in the present is difficult to tolerate: COVID rates are spiking, school is opening and shutting and opening again, the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder, warm weather activities are no longer possible, and indoor gatherings are increasingly risky. The holidays this year will be very different than in previous years.
But now we have news of the vaccine! Health care workers and people in long term care facilities will be vaccinated as early as this month!
There IS light at the end of the tunnel!
But can we feel ourselves lightening up yet?
Can our children feel the hope that the vaccine implies?
As far as education is concerned, learning is radically different for many children regardless of how or where they go to school. Children attending school must adhere to social distancing guidelines and pay close attention to their activities and behavior. Children learning from home need to find the emotional and physical space to focus on their virtual instruction and navigate the novel world of remote learning. Teachers are working on overdrive to deliver their lessons in the smoothest way possible as they adjust to policies and procedures that may not fully account for the complexity of their students’ individual needs – or their own.
Children’s family members and caregivers are also struggling as they navigate these unprecedented times. Many caregivers are spread too thin as they take on numerous roles throughout the day without natural transitions and boundaries. Normal coping strategies (e.g. going to the gym, dining at a restaurant, attending a yoga class, asking friends and family to come over and help with the kids) are no longer feasible solutions.
A family member of mine is an experienced pediatrician, and he noted that families have been sharing with him that some of their children are starting to reach breaking points.
So, no. Perhaps our children cannot yet feel the hope that the vaccine implies. Children live in the present and the present is still hard.
Some children are not turning in work. Some are logging out in the middle of class. Most children, except perhaps those with the most energetic, exceptional teachers, are bored.
The personal interaction children had with teachers is absent. The desire to work for the teacher, to please him or her is more remote with remote learning. The motivation to pay attention is in short supply as a result.
So what can we do, in these dark days of winter, to help our children with their feelings of sadness, anger, boredom and loneliness, in other words, to survive in the present?
My two daughters, ages 5 and 7, continue to express frustrations about their radically different daily routines. My older daughter has been a champ with her 100% remote instruction. She signs into her classroom on time every day and seems to be keeping up with her responsibilities. While I am beyond grateful for her success, we run into difficulties after school. When I try to encourage non-screen related activities, there is usually backlash. “Mom, I don’t want to go to the playground, I don’t want to go outside and ride my scooter.” Last week as she was making these assertions, she burst into tears and said, “I really miss my friends, I want COVID to be over.” In that moment, I stopped pushing my agenda and then validated her and held her close as she cried.
My younger daughter is faring better during COVID than she was previously. The extra time with family and the slower pace of life has resulted in reduced anxiety for her. While this sounds all well and good, my husband and I are beginning to explore in person pre-k for her because she is not cooperative in our home schooling attempts and we don’t want her to fall behind. As we have broached this subject with her, her expression immediately shifts, and she becomes visibly sad and anxious about the prospect of returning to school.
I realize that my girls’ experiences may or may not be in line with the experiences of other children, but I’m going to offer some ideas that have worked with my kids and may be helpful for others during this next wave of darkness.
- Validate your children’s feelings and let them know that they have every right to feel the way they feel. It also may be helpful to let them know that you are struggling in your own way as well.
- Understand that your children’s exaggerated emotions regarding day-to-day challenges are likely reflective of deeper tensions they are holding.
- Praise your children when they adopt healthy coping skills on their own, for example if they engage in an activity on their own terms (e.g. arts and crafts, reading, playing with their toys.)
- Take a day trip somewhere new where you and your kids can spend time outside, i.e. hiking, visiting a farm, or exploring a new town.
- Encourage meaningful use of screen time such as FaceTiming with friends and family members or watching learning-oriented programming on television. My girls are loving shows on TLC right now. They also love calling their grandparents and friends to say hi! This feels much healthier than getting sucked into endless YouTube clips.
- Consider letting your kids have a special treat when days are tough. Wendy’s is our go-to—we load the kids in the car and then allow them to order a meal at the drive-through. This activity is especially appreciated on a rainy day.
- Engage in a charitable activity and enlist the help of your kids. We have collected canned goods a couple times and, as a family, have delivered them to a local food bank. We then use this as an opportunity to focus on gratitude for the privileges we do have.
- Get creative with babysitting. Depending on your COVID risk tolerance, consider having a babysitter or young teenager come over. We have been in touch with families in our community and have invited a few select babysitters over to help. The kids really love having the younger babysitters (i.e. middle school or high school age) over because they are often more interested in playing. We evaluate COVID risk by checking in with their parents to assess how much exposure the potential young babysitters have had and vice versa. Right now, we have a 13-year-old coming over who is in virtual school 100% of the time and has had minimal contact with people. The kids have spent hours playing together and it feels somewhat normal. It is fun for the younger kids and provides meaning for the older kids.
I hope you find these strategies helpful as you navigate this next wave of darkness. With any luck, as spring emerges, and the vaccine is delivered, we will return to some level of normalcy. Then, at that time, our children may need different guidance and support since “normal life” will not be normal, it will be new to them!