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  • Anjali Gupta

Pandemic Parenting This Summer

The lives of children and adolescents changed suddenly due to this pandemic, and there have been a wide range of losses they have experienced. School represents interactive academics, a daily routine, connection with peers, positive adult mentors, and reliable meals. Though the expectation has been that technology could be a great equalizer, we have seen the way this pandemic has widened the gap of inequity. Amidst this pandemic, the wrongful deaths of civilians along with peaceful protests demanding change can also be topics that are difficult for children to process. Cancelled trips and camps have added further lack of structure to the summer months. What is some helpful advice for parents through the summer break?

Q & A Today:

Phyllis Fagell, a middle school counselor, Washington Post journalist, and author of Middle School Matters

Q: I know in your book one of the key principles is Fostering Honesty. How much should parents tell children about this pandemic so that they are being honest yet also protective?

The answer depends on the age, the maturity, and the awareness of each child. Parents can always start with understanding what the child knows and coming at it from a place of curiosity. What does your child understand about the pandemic? What have they heard? I think we can explain that there are a number of scientists and professionals working very hard to learn more about the virus and create regulations and policies to help keep us safe. We can wear masks, be socially distant, and focus on things within our control. I think this holds true for how adults can approach this also. We cannot control whether we are exposed, but we can control the level of risk we are willing to assume in this process. Also, limit media exposure to upsetting news. For children younger than 11 years old, they may not be able to contextualize as well as older children. For instance, if they hear there are 500 deaths, and they hear it again multiple times in a day, they may not understand it is the same 500. In their mind, they might feel like it is another 500 each time so there are thousands dying by the end of the day. I have seen young kids and tweens through this pandemic with signs of anxiety and depression, picking skin, picking eyebrows. A younger child may regress with potty training and separation anxiety. Children look to us for reassurance, and we can do that while still being honest and authentic. We don't need to sugar coat things; we can communicate facts to minimize distress and foster resilience and hope.

Q: Summer is less structured for families with cancellations of trips and camps. What are some helpful tips?

I think both parents and children are in need of a break. Children usually look to summer to have some level of structure with flexibility. So even when they are doing camp, it is usually something they choose like soccer or art, and it is something they look forward to. For parents, these opportunities usually give a sense of reprieve for a few hours/day so they can work. I think validating these summer losses is the first part. Then implement plans to mimic what these camps represented. Talk about what the child gets excited about, what activities sound enjoyable, and what they can do in nature. Figure out how they can play outdoors and socialize with friends in safe ways. Even younger children need some structure to their day and a plan that includes rest and outdoors. I am finding that parents are feeling guilty and overwhelmed because they have to get work done, and they feel too busy to engage to the degree their child is asking sometimes. Schedule time together. Maybe you have a break at 3 pm and 7 pm so spend that half hour taking a bike ride or going for a walk. It is not necessarily about the quantity, but connect with your child in a meaningful way.

Q: What are your thoughts on connection and engagement as schools plan for the fall?

Going into the fall, I think we need to recognize that children will be in different places post pandemic. The challenges have varied for children from academics to social distance to learning challenges. Others have benefited with less stimulation. We may see many different issues from school phobia to OCD to difficulty adjusting back to new routines and new teachers. I don't think we can just think we are going to start back with normal routines. We are going to have to celebrate the re-engagement and being part of a community again. As we go into the fall with more time and thought than the emergency of the spring, we need to think about best practices and be mindful of technology and connection. More synchronous activity can be a challenge because of inequities, but more breakout rooms and offline engagement between peers fosters the connections that are missing in the virtual environment. Older children need to be given autonomy and control, but we need to think about how to provide individualized attention that is not optional. A public charter school that announced it will do distant learning in the fall is also looking at risk groups more carefully. So though they are doing remote learning, they are providing supervision at school for certain groups of children such as those from homeless families.

Q: I enjoyed your chapter in your book on Embracing Difference In Self and Others. What are your thoughts on this topic given the current state of our country?

I defer to specialists on DEI, but what I will say is that there is room for important conversations between parents and children. There are natural opportunities in our life, and we need to seize them for discussions. For some families, race has been a constant conversation in their household, but others may be uncomfortable and worried about saying the wrong thing so they avoid it. But again, come at it from a place of curiosity. What does your child know? How do they understand what is happening? Use the current situation to reflect, to teach kindness, to explain the obligation we have to one another and discuss inclusivity. Think about whether you are sending consistent messages. What do your own friendships look like? Are you making light of the news or making off color comments in front of them? Teens are wired for social justice, and it will be interesting to see what changes this generation will produce as a result of the conversations that are happening.

Thank you to Phyllis for the inspiration!

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