As the COVID-19 vaccine begins to penetrate society, it strikes me that people have started to say we can go “back to normal, to return to our old life.” It has been one year since many of us received that first email from school letting us know that our kids would be home for the rest of the 2020 school year. Homeschooling began abruptly, and parents of kids who were once perfectly happy the days before the shutdown began, started to sink into depression and miss their friends.
Throughout this pandemic, parents worldwide have sadly come to experience what it feels like to have a lonely child, shut out, and without hope. They have had to watch sadness slowly creep in each day. We’ve all tried to make things better—creating the “fun” learning environment or new and creative activities to make the day more bearable. Parents had to learn to teach world history and algebra. They have had to be the emotional coach, the planner, and the cheerleader, trying to get their child into a new routine, desperately wanting to improve their overall mood and happiness.
Although we said we are “all in this together,” with special education suspended, parents working, having to manage kids at home, an economic crisis, and our most vulnerable kids without the support they need, we may want to be in it together. Still, many people have had a very different experience than others.
And beneath the surface of all of this was the groundhog day nature of social distancing and life without graduations, football games, family gatherings, and school trips. As one teen said to me, “I know you want me to make a plan, but for what? There is nothing to look forward to.” As fun and joy became something we had to manufacture, the loss of connection and the practice of interpersonal, in-person connections created its own ripple effect—a mental health crisis.
For the last year, for myself, parents, and kids alike, mental health has been top of mind. Unfortunately, so many aspects of life that help kids reach those developmental milestones have been lost in the shuffle—it’s more than just attending school; it’s playing in the park, play dates, birthdays, and family gatherings.
Kids are in a mental health crisis. They are left behind. Some experts warn its repercussions could rival those of a hurricane disaster. Recovery is not a one-year thing. We don’t just bring the kids back, and everything falls into place.
We have a nation of children coping with trauma and disruption. Emergency rooms report a 24 percent increase in mental health-related visits from children ages five to 11 compared to last year. In older kids, it’s just over 30 percent. To say we need to “return to normal” ignores those kids, many of whom are our most vulnerable.
We need more than a vaccine to address the aftermath. We cannot go back. When someone says normal—tell them!! We can only go forward, and we need to reset our expectations.
Reset Your Thinking and Focus on What the Year Has Provided
The stress and pressures of the past year have lead to huge burnout, both for us as parents and our kids. When this happens, you are not as emotionally available as you could be. We’ve lost our connection and the emotional presence that helps us relate and respond in a positive and effective way when our kids present us with their challenges. This is not all bad news. COVID-19 has forced us to focus on what’s important. We as parents can take a deep breath and think about things in a different way:
- Pause and consider any positive changes this year has brought.
- Create a new vision of your family and what you want for your future?
- Write down the lessons you learned from this year.
- Create a vision for your child. What life skills, values, and qualities do you want her to have? Think of it in terms of short-term/long-term, through school and in her career.
- Prioritize a focus on social emotional learning and connection
- What do you want to do to nurture social emotional skills? What does that look like?
- Identify some of the things you notice about your child this year. Is anything different?
- Document your concerns about any gaps in learning, your child’s social skills, or emotional well-being.
- Pause and consider what you have liked about COVID,-19.
- Make a list of the things that make you not want to go back.
- Step into the shoes of those who have struggled even if you did not and consider what they will need.
Being at home together has provided many positive opportunities to slow down and reconnect with our families. As a result, we can see how quickly our little ones can grow and change. They are resilient and strong. Yes, they have missed so much this year, and we need to give them the opportunity to catch up, but by keeping the focus on what we each need during this time, we will allow everyone to make these moments count and build a better connection to support our children moving forward.