As the weeks of quarantine and staying at home have passed by, more and more articles have popped up discussing the effects of this time on our children’s development. Some claim that the absence of schooling and social interaction is harmful for our kids. Others remind us that all this togetherness and persisting through adversity can benefit our children’s social and emotional skills.
What is a parent to believe? How will our children’s social-emotional development be influenced?
Will our children flourish or flounder as a result of this pandemic?
As with most aspects of social science and children’s development, the truth is usually found in the “messy middle.” Yes, some kids are probably flourishing in some ways by spending more time with their families and experiencing life at a slower pace. And yes, some kids are probably floundering. Perhaps they have special needs that cannot be well-served via online services. Or maybe their temperament or disposition just isn’t well suited for the current situation. The concept of “both/and” is probably the best idea to employ in this situation.
We won’t know fully the implications of this pandemic on children’s social and emotional skills development until years from now. In the meantime, I find it helpful to look for the rays of hope in this weary time. I know many of us have moved beyond the Pollyanna “look on the bright side of life” approach to this stressful situation but I still think we can focus on the good.
With that in mind, I sat down and tried to focus on some of the positive social and emotional skills and lessons are kids are learning through this pandemic.
Social and Emotional Skills Learned During the Pandemic
Other People Matter
When we first began social distancing and schools began closing, it was hard for kids to make sense of all this. Younger kids especially had a hard time understanding why they had to stay at home if they were not sick and none of their friends were sick. It’s taken time and explanation, but many kids are now understanding that we are primarily staying home for the sake of other’s health and safety.
This is a huge social-emotional lesson when you think about it. Kids, especially young kids, have very limited ability to think about another person’s perspective. Their little brains are not yet equipped to put themselves “in someone else’s shoes.” Thinking in this way is a stretch for them.
Related reading: The Hidden Way That Kids Learn Empathy (and How Parents Can Help)
For older kids, however, this idea that we sometimes do things to help others, even if it is inconvenient or even uncomfortable for us, is powerful. If we can help our kids understand that the inconvenience of staying home is done for the sake of vulnerable people in our community, the sacrifice takes on much more meaning. After years of psychological studies of stress and coping, one predominant message that comes forth is this: suffering is made more manageable when it is given a higher meaning or purpose. This is why people who lose a loved one to a horrible disease or accident, start foundations in their name. The act of helping others gives their suffering some sense of meaning.
Action tip: When kids get frustrated about canceled events or mask-wearing, keep reminding them of how these small sacrifices benefit the vulnerable members of our community. Possibly even mention vulnerable people in their lives such as grandparents or immune-compromised friends who need support during this challenging time.
Facts Help Us Fight Fear
Throughout this time all of us have experienced times of fear. None of us have experienced a pandemic before. We don’t know a lot about this new virus. There are plenty of reasons to be fearful.
Before school was canceled, kids came home with all sorts of misinformation and rumors about the virus. One way to combat this is to help kids, especially older kids, understand how to seek out reliable information. We’ve had several discussions with our kids, especially our 10-year-old, about not always believing all the information he gets about this topic from friends. We’ve discussed what sources of information we trust and believe to be scientific and reliable. In this way, we can empower kids to help combat some of the fear.
Of course, it’s always good for kids to know it’s okay to be afraid. One of the basic tenets of positive parenting is that kids should be allowed to express emotions, even the ones we don’t like. Our role as parents, however, can be to guide them through how to cope with these emotions, including fear.
Action tip: For older kids especially, it’s helpful to point out how you choose reliable sources of information. Discuss the difference between information based on scientific research versus hearsay or anecdotal evidence. This is a huge skill-building area for helping them learn about evaluating information and critical thinking.
Adaptability is Key
Emotional adaptability is another important social-emotional skill kids are learning a lot about lately. In the course of a few months many of their regular events have been canceled–sporting events, birthday parties, vacations, etc. These changes are difficult for all of us. Through these difficult changes, however, kids are learning about how to adapt when events in life don’t go their way.
Renowned psychologist Dr. Susan David is the top expert on this topic. She discusses this skill of emotional agility is such helpful terms. She explains that pushing down or trying to ignore the difficult emotions associated with a negative event (e.g., cancellation of big events) does not really help us move forward. Instead we can find ways to make sense of the emotions and integrate them into our lives.
“Resilience is actually about integration,” she said. “When we’ve got a part of ourselves, of our history, that feels separate from us … we get so stuck in it that it actually takes over our day, our lives.” Instead, she said, integration is “being able to sew the quilt of that experience into the larger pattern of our lives.”
As parents, we can help our children do this in little ways by not trying to ignore or stuff down their disappointed feelings. We can listen and discuss these emotions with our kids. Sometimes, as Dr. David points out, just giving words to these emotions help us find some resolution.
“There’s a lot of research supporting the idea that when we put emotions into language, we start to process them. Whether we do this through writing or talking to someone like a therapist or friend, putting our feelings into words helps us generate insight into our experience that allows us to move forward. “
Action tip: Encourage kids to discuss their feelings about changes in events or schooling. Try not to immediately push away their disappointed feelings but allow them to talk them out or even write them out. This ultimately helps them process the changes better emotionally.
Throughout this pandemic, we continue to see how small acts of kindness make a stressful situation a little more bearable. Kids notice this too. It’s been kids who have started putting teddy bears in windows, decorating sidewalks with chalk drawings, writing cards for elderly individuals who are stuck inside. Through all these simple actions, kids are learning that even small acts of kindness can help us feel better in weary times. This lesson in emotional intelligence for kids will hopefully be one they can remember for the future.
Related reading: Acts of Kindness for Kids: Ideas Kids Can Do While Stuck at Home
Action tip: Continue to help kids find ways to show kindness in their community. For example, many nursing home residents need pen-pals, food banks need food donations, and homeless shelters need supplies for those they serve.
Let’s be honest–there is no playbook for parenting during a pandemic. We are all just doing the best we can under the circumstances. Our children are just trying to manage the best way they can too. One thing we know we can do is be our children’s emotional guide through this uncertain time. With our help, we can hope that our kids emerge from this time with an emotional resilience they can carry with them through life.