It might be hard to believe, but it’s been one whole year since schools first shut down because of the pandemic. For many kids and parents who are coping with this unusual school year and social distancing measures, it has felt like an eternity.
Now that the vaccine rollout is underway, we’re finally starting to see a path through to the other side of this mentally and emotionally exhausting period in our shared history. For many families, this winter has been one of the most challenging times they have experienced together. Lots of folks are nearing their breaking points, which makes it even harder to keep holding on while we wait for things to be “normal” again.
This winter has been especially difficult for kids, partly because their emotional skills like patience and foresight are still developing—but also, sadly, because they are already feeling robbed of a year of their short lives. For lots of young people, this year of social distancing has felt like a giant pause with birthday parties, graduations, and other important milestones and celebrations getting cancelled or scaled down along the way. And for really young kids, who don’t have a solid sense of time and live perpetually in the moment, this truly feels like it’s been going on forever. It’s helpful to give kids of all ages some hope, some realistic information, and some context around how the situation is evolving over time.
As these (hopefully!) final months of pandemic lockdown drag on, your kids are likely to have some (very valid) complaints about the situation. Here are some talking points that can help you respond to the most common concerns parents are hearing from their children these days:
1. “My friends are hanging out, why can’t I?”
It can definitely be frustrating to see others taking risks that your family isn’t willing or able to take. First and foremost, validate those feelings. Try something like this:
“It is really hard to see other people doing the things you wish you could do. Some folks choose to take more risks in order to have more freedom, and our family is choosing to try to stay safe from the virus however we can. Let’s brainstorm some ways you can see your friends safely.”
2. “I’m so tired of wearing a mask!”
This is a tough one, because we’re ALL tired of wearing masks—but according to experts, we may still need to wear them in public spaces through the end of the year. Here’s what you can say:
“I know they’re so uncomfortable and annoying, but let’s take a second to think of some people who we’re protecting by wearing our masks.”
By shifting the focus away from their personal discomfort and reminding them why we wear our masks in the first place, you’ll not only reinforce the safe habit, but you’ll build their empathy for others who are at risk.
3. “I hate virtual school!”
This school year has been out of the ordinary for everyone, whether your child has had virtual school or not—but for the majority of kids who are still doing some version of distance learning (and for their parents) the adjustment has been a rough one. Remind them:
“This school year is so hard on everyone, even your teachers—and we all need to lower our expectations and be patient with ourselves and others. What are the things that are hardest for you? Let’s talk with your teacher about how to work together on this.”
4. “I really miss playing basketball/going to dance class/etc.”
So many of our daily routines and activities have been sidelined during this pandemic. It’s only natural for kids to feel sad or anxious when they don’t have access to the physical, creative, or social outlets that used to fill their days. Try telling them:
“I know you do. You should be able to do that again next year. In the meantime, what are some activities or hobbies you’ve always wanted to try?”
Providing a fun alternative can make this difficult time feel a little more special. This could be the year they finally take singing lessons (via YouTube videos), or learn Spanish on an app like Duolingo. No matter what they choose, make sure they know you’re supporting them all the way and that their old favorite activities will be back again eventually.
5. “Why can’t we go on vacation if there’s a vaccine?”
There’s been so much in the news and on social media about the vaccine—questions are bound to come up. It might be hard for a child to conceptualize the enormous logistical challenge of making and distributing vaccines to everyone in the country. Some folks have already been vaccinated and have started traveling again, while others will need to remain cautious for months to come.
Fortunately, we now have a better idea of when the time might come that every adult who wants one is vaccinated. President Biden recently gave remarks about the vaccine timeline, and announced that every adult should be able to get the vaccine by the end of May. Kids, however, are still not eligible—though trails have begun and it looks like kids may be able to start getting vaccinated by the fall. In the meantime, try telling them:
“Until almost every person in the country has been vaccinated, it will still be risky to go on an airplane, or stay in a hotel. Let’s come up with some ideas for fun day trips we could take in the car!”
They’ll love getting to help pick the locations, and it can be really fun to explore the nearby towns and landmarks you may have never visited otherwise!
6. “When can we see grandma/cousins/etc. again?”
So many families are going through some degree of separation and turmoil right now. Lots of extended family members and elders are isolated in order to keep everyone safe, but it can be really hard to miss holidays and visits that they’re used to spending with those family members. Explain that:
“We have to go a little while longer just talking to grandma on the phone or over video chat, in order to keep her safe. Let’s start planning what we’re going to do the first time we’re able to see her again!”
This will help them contextualize the separation from their loved ones, and give them a project to work on and something to look forward to.
7. “When will things go back to normal?”
There’s no 100 percent correct answer to this question yet, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, echoed Biden’s optimism about every adult being vaccinated by the end of spring, and life generally returning to some semblance of a pre-pandemic normal by early 2022. Tell your child:
“It’s hard to know for sure, but the scientists think it might be soon after the next New Year!”
This will give them a memorable holiday to use as a reference point, and help them understand how far away “normal” might be.
The most important thing to keep in mind when responding to your child’s concerns about the pandemic is to validate their feelings. Acknowledging and naming hard feelings can actually do a lot to release those emotions. Showing them that you respect their feelings and understand how hard this is on them will make them feel heard.