My friend Sadie’s daughter Jade just finished 6th grade—her first year of middle school. Not great timing to start middle school during a pandemic, but such was life.
Sadie said quarantine life was harder on her extroverted daughter than on her more introverted, younger son. Jade missed seeing her friends. Online school was no fun, and all her after-school activities came to a screeching halt in March of 2020.
But this summer things are finally opening back up in our community. Sadie told me she was pretty desperate to plug Jade back into her activities—art class, karate, and children’s theater. She filled out the plethora of online forms as quickly as she could.
Jade’s summer life was soon busier than it had been in over a year. But rather than the energized, upbeat child Sadie had seen pre-Covid, Jade was tired and cranky. On a particularly rough evening, Sadie and Jade were bickering about washing Jade’s karate gear before her next class, when Sadie found herself demanding, “Don’t you even appreciate that you can finally get back out and do things? You’ve wanted this all year!”
Jade yelled back, “ You didn’t even ask me if I wanted to do these things! You just signed me up.”
“Because I didn’t want to miss the deadlines,” Sadie explained wearily.
“That’s not the point. You never even asked me,” her daughter retorted.
Our Kids are Still Recovering from the Mental Exhaustion of Quarantine Life
As mother and daughter went back and forth, Sadie began to realize she should have asked Jade the “big picture” question of what she needed from this summer, after the long year of pandemic schooling. Jade had experienced 6th grade initially online, then in an unpredictable hybrid format, and was still mentally exhausted from the chaotic experience.
Sadie had thought getting back to normal would help, but three activities seemed to be too much for Jade, even with friends in each. Jade told her mom she wanted to quit theater—not forever, just for now. Sadie was disappointed to lose some money in this scenario, but could see how vital this change was to her daughter. She let Jade quit theater, and soon Jade’s mood and energy level improved.
During Quarantine Kids Had Little Control Over Their Lives
As I considered Jade’s Covid-19 school year experience, which was similar to that of my own kids, I was reminded that children had very little control over their daily schedules during the pandemic. Initially they were abruptly told, “No more in-person school as of tomorrow.” Then in the next few days, they were informed they couldn’t see their friends or continue their activities, owing to quarantine protocols.
Even we adults had a little more control over our lives during the pandemic. We could at least decide which walk our family should take, where to ride our bikes that day, or where we would buy our food. Our kids, not so much.
So, as our families slowly move out of quarantine life, Jade reminds us that we should give our kids back as much control over their lives as possible.
Let Children Make As Many Choices As You Can
We can begin by talking to kids about their hopes and needs for this summer. Then let them make as many personal and family choices as we can—after a year without choice. Most kids experienced some regression as they dealt with the long-term stress of the pandemic. Ten year-olds may have seemed more like eight year-olds again in social and emotional abilities such as frustration tolerance and communication.
As life is moving back to normal, our kids need some space to mentally catch up to their regular developmental levels. This will take time, and each child’s needs will be different. For some, a structured, predictable day camp with friends will help this summer. Other kids will need to build back up to a full social schedule more slowly, having perhaps lost some of the social skills they previously had. Take small steps toward social events with these kids. Helping our children notice which summer activities seem most rejuvenating is a useful conversation to have with them.
Parents Need Some Patience
The last thing we parents want to do after almost a year and a half of quarantine life is to be patient. But being patient as our kids build back their social and emotional capacities worn down by pandemic stressors is what our children need from us.
Putting kids in the driver’s seat to make as many choices about their lives as is age appropriate this summer and next school year should increase their self-competence and confidence—things we all could use more of after this past year.