During their second COVID-19 summer, unvaccinated tweens are struggling.

Here’s how you can help them cope.

There’s a question being whispered among parents of 11-year-olds these days: Have you gotten them vaccinated yet?

The move runs afoul of medical advice, as the FDA has only approved Pfizer’s COVID-19 shots for ages 12 and up. (Vaccines for kids 11 and younger aren’t expected to roll out until September at the earliest.) But it’s not all that tricky to pull off, according to one anonymous mom, who recently managed it with her daughter. At a drugstore they’d never visited before, she told the staff that her 11-year-old’s birth date on the insurance card was a typo.

The daughter’s already severe anxiety had been exacerbated by the pandemic, to the point that she was terrified to go to school in a mask or hug her vaccinated grandparents. “Now I can say, ‘But you’re vaccinated,’” the mom says. “It’s a way to remind her that she’s OK, and she feels a little more at ease.”

Even in families with younger children who don’t have such debilitating fears, many parents have been at least tempted to do the same thing. No matter everyone else’s vaccination status, summer plans need to be safe for an 11-or-under-year-old. Parents may be juggling different rules for siblings with the tiniest of age gaps. And it can be emotionally tough for unvaccinated tweens to hang out with classmates who’ve already gotten their shots and are enjoying newfound freedoms. Being forced to hold on until the fall seems seriously—to use a popular kid-vocabulary word—unfair.

“I understand why parents might not make them wait longer,” says clinical psychologist Jane Timmons-Mitchell of Case Western Reserve University. But since some parents are unlikely to fib about their children’s ages to get vaccines, they’ll have to find other ways to deal with this second COVID-19 summer. “As parents, we need to deliver the message, ‘That’s how it is. You’ll have to wait your turn,’” she adds. Here’s how to get started.

What it’s like to be 11 right now

With businesses reopening at pre-pandemic capacities and mask mandates disappearing, families with kids under 12 are in a predicament. Because those children can’t be vaccinated yet, their families aren’t rushing back into their old routines. Some may even be more cautious now because of mounting concerns over the more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19. (Here’s why you need to take that virus variant seriously.)

Take 11-year-old Olivia Knauer of Baltimore, whose birthday is at the end of August. Her mom, dad, and two older brothers are all vaccinated, but the fact she’s not has been a major sticking point in making summer plans. The family deliberately settled on a beach vacation in North Carolina without amusements and attractions, so there’s less temptation to mingle. And her parents passed on considering a potential getaway just for Knauer and her grandmother to visit other relatives, which they deemed unnecessarily risky.

Her late summer birthday means Knauer can’t be fully vaccinated until at least a month into the next school year, which puts her well behind most of her classmates. Many of them had their first shots in May. “When we went out to recess, my friends didn’t have to wear masks outside, but I did,” she says. They’ve also started throwing slumber parties that she’s not allowed to attend. Knauer’s take? “I don’t feel that left out, but kind of.”

Eleven-year-old Isaac Lunday has a more mundane motivation for getting jabbed. “I want to go into a grocery store with my mom again,” says the tween from Cockeysville, Maryland, who really misses running the Wegmans app. Lunday watches the news every night, eagerly awaiting the latest developments from vaccine trials. “According to Fauci, it should be around Thanksgiving. I think if it works on 12-year-olds, it will work on 11-year-olds,” he says. “I just can’t wait.”

Neither can Charlotte Eastwick of Washington, D.C., who just had her 11th birthday—and her 11-year-old checkup at her doctor’s office. That meant three shots of different vaccines, but nothing for COVID-19. She complained to her mom, “I just wish I could get the one I wanted.” If Eastwick were in charge, age 10 would be the cutoff instead of 12. “That’s fairer because it’s double digits,” she says. Since she’s not, masks are still required for soccer practice and practically every other activity. “They’re fine when it’s colder,” Eastwick says. “But it got more annoying when it got hotter.”

Inside an 11-year-old brain

Maturity level varies wildly at the 11-year-old mark, says clinical psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder, who writes the “Let’s Talk Tween” blog for Psychology Today. “One kid may be socially savvy and talking about ‘dating,’ another might be with dolls and trucks still,” she says. So their emotions and reactions to this limbo stage of the pandemic are hard to pin down. But pretty much all of them have spent more time with their families than they typically would have over the past year, which could feel frustrating. “Usually at this age, they’re breaking out,” she explains.

For tweens, peer relationships take on more importance, as does being perceived as “normal.” “Feeling like they belong becomes a driving force in their lives. They want to be part of everything they think their peers are participating in. This is key to their self-esteem,” Powell-Lunder adds. “When they feel that they have missed out on something, especially if they were not invited, it makes them feel isolated and lonely.”

Less extroverted kids may not mind lingering restrictions, notes Autumn Kujawa, director of the Mood, Emotion, & Development Lab at Vanderbilt University. “For others, there’s concern about missing out on things, and a comparison of how it’s going back to normal for some kids, and not for them,” she says. And all of this is layered on top of the standard tween challenges, such as higher levels of anxiety, body image issues, and frequent irritability outbursts.

Some moodiness is to be expected no matter what, says clinical psychologist Archana Basu of MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But parents should brace themselves for additional emotional reverberations this summer. “Vaccine envy can be real. These feelings may be particularly heightened for those who have older vaccinated siblings or cousins,” Basu notes. “Some disagreements might feel bigger or more emotional than they typically would, and issues of fairness might take on a new level of scrutiny.” (Here’s how to help kids deal with vaccine worries.)

How parents can help

Although 11-year-olds aren’t necessarily the chattiest bunch—at least with their parents—the only way to find out how they’re feeling about being unvaccinated is to sit down and talk about it.

Kujawa suggests checking in about what they know or have heard about vaccines for children. Clarifying details, offering more information, and being realistic about the timeline may help them mentally prepare for the months ahead.

“Focusing on the positive and anticipating positive things in the future are protective,” she adds. “Although [September] can feel a long way away for a kid.”

Reframing their perspective provides a boost, notes Timmons-Mitchell, who suggests reminding kids about how quickly the vaccines have been developed and how much has changed for the better in a short time.

“They have many more opportunities than last summer,” she says. You can also remind them that being surrounded by vaccinated friends and relatives makes them much safer and that they have plenty of low-risk outdoor activities they can do.

If kids are unhappy with the family’s COVID-19 protocols, think about ways to ease up on other rules to balance things out, Timmons-Mitchell suggests. For example, summer bedtimes often get pushed back anyway, so maybe you can make lights out a full hour later. “You can present it like they’re getting something they wouldn’t have gotten,” she says.

And if your summer adventures feel restricted this year, brainstorm together to come up with different, more achievable goals, such as a new way to volunteer. “When the focus is on helping somebody else, that takes the focus off ‘woe is me,’” she adds. (Here are some ideas for kids volunteering at home.)

Most importantly, make it clear that you empathize with what they’re going through.

“If something feels unfair, validate that feeling,” Basu says, who notes that you can then give those emotions a constructive spin. “With preschoolers, we’re often saying, ‘I’m so proud of you. I see how careful you were.’ With pre-teenagers, you can ask, ‘How did you feel about that choice you made?’ Can they feel proud of their choices?”

That would be a pretty grown-up accomplishment for 11-year-olds, even if they’re still not old enough to get vaccinated.

Read This Next

The kids may not be all right. Here’s how to check in on their mental health.
Talking to kids about vaccines
The pandemic has caused lots of worries in kids. Don’t let vaccines become one of them.