With new vaccines becoming increasingly available to Americans and numbers going down weekly, many people are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel with COVID-19. As exciting as it is to think about one day getting back to normal again, there will be many new challenges and hurdles to address as we make up for lost time and re-establish old routines while working through pandemic anxiety. While we as adults will have our own adjustments, kids will be faced with their own unique changes and transitions that can potentially leave them worried and unprepared for life after COVID-19. How will we help kids return to traditional school, as well as sports and activities that many have not been involved with for over a year? Concerned parents may want to get in front of looming issues and concerns early so that they can help navigate a healthy and safe future path for their kids.
Mental health clinicians often use stress inoculation to help clients better identify, prepare, and respond to the stress they experience in life. Simple, modified versions of stress inoculation can be used with kids, including young kids. For example, teaching kids about how human perception impacts stress is important as it allows kids to begin to see how their thinking can impact life situations — for better or for worse. From there, parents and teachers can help kids learn basic stress coping techniques, including deep breathing and positive self talk. Finally, helping kids prepare ahead of time for their specific stress that looms pulls the entire idea together and galvanizes the stress response.
Below is an example of how these ideas can be used with kids overcoming pandemic anxiety as we transition away from COVID-19 back to normal times:
1.) Discuss all the changes COVID-19 has caused, and how kids can choose to perceive the last year as the worst thing that has ever happened to them, or in healthier ways by recognizing how their human resiliency has made them stronger for future stressors they might experience in life.
2.) Help kids use specific stress coping mechanisms when they begin to feel anxious. For example, when the day comes that schools begin removing plexiglass dividers and work toward integrating all kids back to school at the same time, skills like imagery, deep breathing, and positive self-talk can help increase confidence while decreasing anxiety.
3.) Finally, help kids pinpoint future events that are likely to cause anxiety, and prepare specifically for those moments. For example, as kids return to sports, clubs, and activities there may be specific potentially stressful future dates that families want to prepare for — like the first day that social distancing and masks are no longer required.
Remember, kids haven’t had our life experiences yet
It is important to remember that many of the life events and experiences we now find harmless might at one time caused us great distress. A lot of kids right now have no idea how long the current pandemic will last, or what long-term changes await after the pandemic ends. Kids have had to deal with atypical schooling, loss of social and sport experiences, and handling a lot of isolation away from people and things they enjoy. We can help kids through these times by discussing these changes, and guiding kids through real, rational concerns (i.e. what impact will the pandemic have on my education long-term?) while helping them dismiss irrational concerns (i.e. life will never, ever be enjoyable again).
Leaving kids to figure all of this out on their own is a risky move, especially after a year of having our lives turned upside down. If you think the changes you have dealt with as an adult have been challenging, you might want to take pause and view what kids have been through in order to gain a full appreciation of their stress.
While it may not be necessary, or even healthy, to hold kids hands tightly as they eventually re-integrate to a normal life again, you might want to think about how you can lend your knowledge and wisdom relating to how kids can best prepare to work through these final stages of the pandemic. Handling stress is a big key to life success, and showing kids how to effectively perceive situations, separate rational from irrational thinking, and use effective stress-reducing techniques and skills can make a big difference and well worth the effort.