So you hear in August that your child’s school will reopen for in-person classes—but are given no date. Then you’re told September 10. Then September 21. Finally, your kid goes back to school on September 29 … and learns a few days later she’ll be getting sent home again.
Most families probably aren’t experiencing the extreme reopening whiplash that some New York City children recently faced. But as more schools cautiously begin in-class learning, the likelihood of a school slamming shut again because of a COVID-19 outbreak remains ever present. And that sudden change can be difficult on children.
“Kids thrive when they can count on the adults around them to provide structure, warmth, guidance, and predictability,” says Mary Alvord, co-author of the Resilience Builder for Children and Adolescents. “What is difficult is when there is constant uncertainty and change.”
Children’s lives have been in a state of flux since the pandemic started shutting down schools and other activities in the spring. Routines disappeared seemingly overnight, and even now plans can feel iffy at best. The only constant in the lives of most now is change.
“And it’s not just the pandemic at play here,” Alvord says. “Racial tensions, economic losses and instability, and tremendous politic divisiveness … all of it affects our kids.”
That’s why even children who bounced back from canceled graduations and end-of-year concerts just a few months ago might now be struggling.
“For both kids and their parents, a lot of their coping skills have been really challenged at this time,” says family therapist Ulash Dunlap. “The tools you had before might not be working anymore. It may be time for new ones.”
The ability to deal with sudden change is key to mental health, Dunlap says. But the skills needed to do that require practice. “Resiliency is like a muscle,” she adds. “If we don’t use it, or if we don’t know how to use it, we may need a bit of help to build strategies that work it out.”
Luckily parents can encourage children to practice coping skills that will help them better navigate sudden change and uncertainty, Alvord says. “The key is to be mentally flexible, learn how to problem-solve, and accept change as a challenge rather than an obstacle.”
Experts agree that resilient children will have an easier time dealing with whatever the pandemic throws at them—and will be stronger at the end of it. Here are some coping techniques parents can practice with their children when faced with sudden change.
Teach kids to be mentally flexible
Alvord advises starting by encouraging something called “mental flexibility,” what we might think of as the ability to go with the flow. She defines it as the ability to come up with many different solutions or ways of thinking about a challenge or situation.
“The aim is to have balanced and helpful thinking,” she says. Kids who can come up with multiple possibilities to an outcome rather than having an “all-is-doomed” outlook are more resilient, she adds. Some language to try:
- Today we expected this to happen, but it didn’t. Instead we found out we have to do A and B. So how can we do that?
- What can’t you control that you just have to accept in this situation? And what are things that maybe are not going well that you can be proactive about and do something about now?
Help kids problem-solve
What’s the reaction from your child when hearing disappointing news? Do they blow up, or do they roll with the punches? “Kids who can only see what can go wrong and don’t feel they have any control in situations are more likely to feel hopeless and depressed,” Alvord says.
No matter what the sudden change a child is dealing with, the event is a great opportunity for parents to encourage kids to problem-solve their new situation.
Alvord suggests parents ask their kids: “What are some options we have? What can we try?” Switching kids from focusing on what’s gone wrong to what they can do to make the best of a sudden change replaces helplessness with empowerment.
“There’s so much that we can feel helpless about around COVID-19,” Alvord says. “But we can also feel like ‘We did what we could.’”
Still, Alvord advises that parents resist the temptation to rush in and assist kids as they navigate a sudden change. For instance, when the camera shuts off in the middle of the virtual chat, steer your child toward the solution—emailing the teacher or posting in the chat room—rather than hopping on and doing it yourself.
Even though it might take longer, giving them room to work it out and complimenting them when they use the skills you’re trying to teach will give them confidence that they can overcome these challenges—even if that means not helping out when they’re burning lunch.
“I just have to let it go because they're going to learn from that, that they shouldn't have been on their phone when they had something on the stove,” says Nadine Araksi Silverthorne, co-founder of life coaching firm Kickstartology. “Each time they learn on their own, they're building that resilience muscle because they're learning to trust themselves.”
Give kids back a sense of control
Parents won’t always be around when a sudden change happens—and sometimes even if they are, they need to give kids the space to figure things out on their own.
“I think overall the important thing is helping your kids understand that while [no one] can control everything, there are many things that they can do to improve their lives and the situation,” Alvord says.
Kids who consider change as a challenge they can face—rather than an obstacle they can’t overcome—will be better able to navigate the situation.
“When you think, ‘I can try, or I have dealt with change before, I can do it again,’ it’s empowering,” Alvord says.
Dunlap says that parents can also help children feel like they’re taking back some power in an out-of-control situation by teaching them techniques to use anytime they’re feeling frustrated. Putting down their pencils, square breathing, or setting devices to do not disturb can help them battle mental negativity whenever it creeps in.
Another technique: Put up a white board and encourage kids to write notes about what’s going well that day. The visual cues can be uplifting.
Counteract negative self-talk
Dealing with change means kids need to recognize and counter harmful thoughts that come with anxiety about their new situation. (“You’re going to fail at remote learning.” “You’ll never play with your friends again.”)
When those ideas arise, Alvord suggests you have them answer questions like:
- What is the evidence that this thought is true?
- How likely is the worst-case scenario?
- How have I learned something new before?
And if those destructive thoughts still seep through? Ask the child, “What would you tell your friend if they were saying these things?” Alvord says. Teach your kids to treat themselves just as kindly.
Change often means routines are disrupted yet again, but that stability is crucial for a child’s mental and physical well-being.
If yet another change has upended a carefully managed routine, Alvord recommends figuring out a new schedule as soon as possible. As much as you can, maintain regular bedtimes, dinner times, and movement breaks. (Here’s an article about how kids can play outside.)
Maintaining connections to kids’ friends and community is another way to help children feel more stable in the face of constant change. “Those connections and support systems are critical,” Alvord says, “especially now, with COVID-19, when people are feeling more isolated.”
And as new stressors arise, it will be normal for kids to slip out of their routine—it’s OK to gently remind them to practice the skills they’ve learned.
“All of our coping skills are being challenged right now, but it’s never too late to improve,” Dunlap says. “We can all benefit from new tools that help.”