I can’t say it enough: Parents and educators are the unsung heroes of this pandemic.
In my capacity as a child psychiatrist, I’ve held hundreds of Zoom sessions with educators and parents over these last 11 months. I’ve been amazed by the innovative and inspiring ways they’re helping kids who are struggling with pandemic fatigue — even while struggling themselves.
These conversations humble me and spotlight how essential educators and parents are to healing in this strange, uncertain time. Through my talks with them, I’ve compiled key strategies for helping kids cope while creating a path forward for resiliency. Here are five.
Dancing with ambiguous loss. It’s been nearly a year since the world shut down and life still looks very different. School isn’t technically closed, but it’s not the same. You can see friends online, but not in person. Weddings are still happening, even if we’re six feet apart outdoors and using masks to blot our tears.
Ordinary losses provide the definitiveness that allows us to grieve. When someone dies, for example, we at least hold a funeral to remember them. It’s difficult to mourn what hasn’t been lost, but what has been drastically altered. Family therapist Pauline Boss calls this ambiguous loss. Our rituals have been disrupted and kids, in particular, can struggle with adapting and moving forward. Talking to kids about what they miss is a great way to connect and let them know that, though it hurts, what we do now is a critical part of one day resuming normalcy.
Answer the hard questions. As the pandemic drags on, parents and educators are confronting increasingly difficult questions from kids: “Why are you so sad?” “Why is this happening?” “Why can’t I see grandma?” “Why is there racism?” “Did I do something wrong?” “What will happen to me when you die?”
When kids want to talk, make sure you’re receptive to hearing their hard questions. As a child psychiatrist, I can tell you the hardest thing for a parent to do is sit with your child’s pain -- you want to fix and explain it. During tough times, all of us can yearn for the omniscient parent who can protect us. But never underestimate the power of bearing witness.
Instead of minimizing, dismissing, or giving fast and easy answers, encourage kids to speak freely and help draw them out more. Sit with their pain, let go of the “perfect” answer, and answer them honestly, even if it’s, I don’t know. I wonder about that, too. Sharing your own reflections will also help establish an open door of communication in the future.
Help kids make a meaningful narrative of this time. Treating the pandemic as a challenge to integrate and learn from builds resilience. Psychiatrist Judith A. Cohen advocates for making a meaningful narrative out of trauma, which can be as simple as asking kids what they’ve learned about themselves or how they want to be remembered during this time. One teacher told me how she started doing daily affirmations with her young daughter. “I am brave, I am smart, I am kind, I am strong, I can do this,” they repeat until it becomes a mantra of sorts. Reframing the pandemic as an event that has provided unlikely knowledge, skills or strength is powerful.
When the pandemic first started, we were inundated with the message that “we’re all in this together.” A year later, we still are.
Manage disappointment. Whether it’s learning on Zoom all day or missing sports, kids are being challenged. Psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman notes that a tipping point for depression is when sadness feels permanent and pervasive. This is especially poignant if you’re a 10-year-old and 10% of your life has been the pandemic. Mr. Rogers said that “sadness isn’t forever” — sometimes the most comforting words are often this simple and obvious. Another effective point to make is that time brings relief. This advice from a local school counselor is funny, but true: “Like gas, this too shall pass.”
Connect and cultivate (cautious) optimism. A great way to illustrate that this is all temporary is to make a time capsule. From toilet paper and sheet music to snacks and recipes: What do you and your family want to remember about this time? Engaging in contributory activities builds resilience and cultivates and helps kids make room for contradictory emotions — they can be grateful for more family time, for example, and resentful that baseball was canceled, even though they know it’s for good reason. Recognizing that, in the face of all this loss, there is something to gain and learn is part of post-traumatic growth, psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi’s idea that negative experiences can lead us to have a greater appreciation of life, stronger relationships, personal strength and spiritual change. While this seems like a tall order, it also pushes back at the doom and gloom prophecies when the jury is still out.
Teachers have told me about sending care packages to families, gone door-to-door to connect with kids who haven’t been in school and staging parades for a family with a parent undergoing chemotherapy. Meanwhile, parents have told me how their families are making art for first responders, learning to make pasta and recreating the Italian restaurant experience at home, making Valentines for teachers and friends, and sending notes to senior citizens. Doing good things for others flips the script and helps you feel good, too.
At the end of the day, kids want to know that they’re loved, safe and protected. It’s our job to help them make sense of what they’re enduring and what’s next, which is difficult because we’re still figuring that out, too.
No one can take a vacation right now, so parents and educators must remember that they’re not alone; people are doing the best they can. When the pandemic first started, we were inundated with the message that “we’re all in this together.” A year later, we still are.
Watch Dr. Rappaport speak about resilience and anxiety during the pandemic here.