It’s a classic COVID bummer: My friend was so excited to take her son skiing this winter. It was his big reward for being brave and getting his COVID vaccines. They were going with another family with kids his age, and life would feel — well, fun again. They’d been planning it since before Christmas.
Then, Omicron. His friends started disappearing from class. Teachers were out sick, too. But he’d gotten his shot! He was promised a ski trip! More than a trip, he was promised the notion of normalcy. It was dangled in front of him and now it could be taken away — and his mom felt really guilty. What was this doing to his childhood?
So many of us feel deflated now. We finally expected things to settle down, only to be thrown back into fresh chaos. We’re tired, disappointed, done with coping. And, if we feel this way, how must our kids feel? At least we can put things in perspective (sort of). We’re grown-ups; we’re used to disappointment. But kids?
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a “national emergency” in child and adolescent mental health.
“Across the country, we have witnessed dramatic increases in emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies including suspected suicide attempts,” they wrote. And this was before Omicron took over.
So I talked to Dr. Chase Samsel, medical director of the psychiatry consultation service at Boston Children’s Hospital, for ideas on how to ride out this wave — and how to support our kids while we’re quietly (or not so quietly) losing it inside.
Embrace “good enough” parenting. Very few people are at the top of their game right now. It’s OK to be temporarily mediocre and to operate at pure baseline.
“The concept of good-enough parenting is really critical,” he says. “What kids really need most, no matter how young or how old they are, is a supportive, validating environment and active coping skills. … Supporting and validating kids, as well as giving them active coping skills, are the two most important things that I think parents can do, besides meeting their basic needs.”
Everything else — the trips, events that might get cancelled, vacations put on hold, playdates that have to be outside — are secondary.
Keep things in perspective. So your child is home from school, can’t play sports for a week, or a plan was completely upended. This is incredibly disruptive, but remember this: One American child loses a caregiver for every four COVID deaths.
“I think that there’s often a focus on, ‘Oh, well, school and routine is disrupted.’ And listen: That is absolutely a big deal. That is critical. That’s important. But … there are so many families whose financial means have been significantly disrupted, either because they’re sick, they’ve been laid off, or it’s not safe for them to continue working because they have a kid or another family member they’re taking care of who’s got a vulnerable health condition at home,” Samsel says.
The most devastating disruptors to children are parental illness and socio-economic upheaval, as well as the death of a loved one. The botched vacation or aimless iPad sessions will, hopefully, be absorbed and forgotten over time.
Showing your emotions can prompt kids to show theirs, too. That said, it’s natural to be upset that this pandemic has raged endlessly on. It’s OK to express it, too. This is called modeling, and it helps kids understand that frustration, anger, fear, and disappointment are normal parts of being human.
“It can be OK to have big emotions. It can be OK to feel uncertainties, and to feel scared and angry. Emotions are not things that we just bottle up and keep moving forward with,” Samsel says.
These big emotions don’t have to be reserved for deep discussions, either. They can unfold organically, maybe while driving to school (assuming you have school).
Ask questions that will prompt a meaningful response. We’ve all been there: “How was your day?” “Fine.” End of generic story. Nowadays, try this.
“When talking with our kids, we should be asking them specific questions: ‘Tell me about something today that you were really glad about, and tell me about something today that was really hard,’” Samsel suggests.
Then, do the same for yourself: Share something you were excited about and something that frustrated you. Normalize the emotions.
“Be specific and be intentional about those emotions and frustrations and worries,” he says.
Be honest. Kids might be understandably anxious that they’ll get sick — and it can be tempting to revert to reassurance. Instead, practice compassionate honesty. Your kids might still get sick, even if they’re vaccinated. They might need to stay home from school.
“During these times, the most important concept around this is: Do not make promises that cannot be kept. Especially during uncertain times, there’s often a pull for just saying, ‘Everything’s going to be OK. This not going to happen,’” Samsel says.
Instead, you can say, “Whatever comes up, we’ll figure it out.” Samsel often sees kids who have panic attacks, saying things like, “I never thought this could happen.” Parents, meanwhile, rush to sweep away any worry with promises.
“We call this an error of kindness: It comes from a kind place, but if you can’t guarantee it, especially now, don’t say it,” he cautions. “It’s much better to be honest and talk through the ways that we can still be OK.”
So lean into the worry: “‘Even if this happens, we’re going do X, Y, and Z’ — that sort of disarms the anxiety a little bit, or at least, even if the kid is still anxious, it shows them that we can work through it. It’s not just skirting around the issue,” Samsel says.
This notion of open-endedness and flexibility is an important lesson for kids and adults.
“Parents cannot be in control of everything, and we need to show our kids that sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you’re not in control, and that’s OK. It’s going to get better. Maybe that’s a bit of a promise, but it’s not a major promise that’s bound to fail,” he says.
Harness the power of no. Parents are exhausted now. As such, it’s the perfect time for parents to set boundaries and practice self-respect, both for ourselves and as a teaching tool for kids.
“Peel off from certain things that are not necessary right now. Say ‘no’ to certain things that you feel like you should do but don’t actually need to or have to do right now. Lean out, to be able to do the things that are most important,” he says.
Let yourself off the hook a bit. Shed unnecessary obligations. Decline things that aren’t worth your time.
“We can’t be super moms. We can’t be super dads. We’re not limitless in our potential. We’re not a Marvel superhero character, but we can be good-enough parents who also show to our kids that they themselves also don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything and overextend themselves,” he says.
Remember that kids are resilient. “There’s a concept in neurology and psychiatry where we talk about how kids have plastic brains. That means that, if a kid for a terrible reason has a stroke, [they] actually can physically and psychologically rehabilitate quite well when they’re young,” Samsel says, as opposed to older people who are more set in their ways.
The same thing is true during the pandemic. For instance, use of masks in little kids might cause some delays in appreciation of social cues, but they make up for it over time, he says.
“Kids are constantly growing. It’s not some line of arrested development,” Samsel says.
For context: He works with kids who have cancer or who need organ transplants. Some of them are isolated or interrupted for years — longer than the pandemic. Let them be a lesson.
“They have disruptions that happen to them … before the age of 12, all the time, and there’s so much bounce-back — and it’s almost always when [they] have good-enough parents. Doesn’t have to be perfect. They meet basic needs and [provide] continued opportunities for social engagement and play,” he says.
So next time you’re trying to work while watching your kid play on an iPad during the third day-care cancellation in a row, remember: “I think kids do bounce back. I think that they really do,” Samsel says.
Hopefully grown-ups will, too.