At the start of 2020, the novel coronavirus was far away. Then, week by week, it came closer. Events were cancelled. Vacationers promptly returned home. Schools closed. People in our circles became infected, some getting severely ill. Life as we knew it had changed, and we have been living on edge ever since.

The pandemic impacted every corner of our lives, and significantly altered the way children and teens experienced this chapter of childhood and adolescence. While many teens might gripe about going to school, the sudden loss of in-person learning created a social void for school-aged children. As well, sporting events, music performances and field trips – all part of a normal youth experience – went away.

Those initial changes will have a lasting impact on society as a whole, but experts have noted that the ongoing uncertainty is especially challenging for children. “Some level of worry, confusion or sadness at this time is to be expected,” says Dr. Adam D. Brown, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health and a member of its Child Study Center. “We need to look at what specific emotional and behavioural reactions might indicate traumatic stress, rather than post-traumatic stress, as the current stressors are ongoing.”

As the pandemic’s second anniversary approaches, you can help your child navigate this ongoing “new normal” and any situations that still trigger their stress and anxiety. One way to do this is by very intentionally starting conversations that build a bridge of empathy and openness and create a safe place for your child to share their thoughts and feelings. To help guide these conversations, this article includes some sample scripts which you can alter to suit your child’s circumstances.

Acknowledging emotions on painful anniversaries

For most everyone – especially kids and teens – the words “March 2020” bring a certain sense of anxiety, fear and sadness. And even though much has changed and progressed in two years, children may wonder if life will revert back to those initial chaotic days of the pandemic.

Adults and children alike can struggle with navigating unpleasant emotions, especially when tempted to bury these feelings with distractions and busyness.

God created us with the emotions of fear, sadness and anger; when used as he intended, these emotions can help us heal. In our article “Do your kids know how to handle their emotions?,” author Sissy Goff says that acknowledging your child’s feelings will lead to their own emotional awareness. These insights are especially applicable to the angst and fear around COVID-19 anniversaries:

“When I sit with parents of toddlers, there is one primary emotion those parents describe seeing in their children. You might have guessed it – anger. Anger is what psychologists consider a secondary emotion. That means that generally another emotion is underneath the anger. The child having an angry outburst may feel sad over having her feelings hurt by a sibling. Or she may feel fearful and disrupted by transitions (often an indicator of anxiety). But, because the child has not yet learned to name his feelings, they are all funnelled into the emotion of anger.”

Goff’s article will equip you with tools and resources to understand your child’s anger and anxiety and help them discover a language around the underlying secondary feelings. Remember to hold space for your child to feel and honour the full range of their God-given emotions.

One of the best ways to help your child or teen navigate this pandemic milestone is to normalize all of the emotions they are experiencing and relate it to your own grief. Perhaps you have lost a loved one and the anniversary of their death brings up painful emotions, or a cloud of grief hovers over the loved one’s birthday and Christmas. This can be a bridge to find common ground with your child. Try engaging your child by beginning a conversation like this:

Sample script: I know that this pandemic has been so hard, and that you have missed out on a lot. I imagine that the two-year mark might make you feel anxious again, or even angry. Every time your grandfather's birthday comes, I feel sad that he is not here. I know that your experience is different, but I want you to know that I am here for you, and I won't ever rush you to move past your sadness or anger.

Navigating painful turns in friendship

While most schools and churches and social events have resumed in one form or another, your child still faces the looming possibility of periodic closures. To make matters even more difficult, the growing cultural divide in response to public health orders has created riffs among families and social circles, even between lifelong friends.

What is the lasting impact of physical distance on teens and their friendships? According to a New York Times article about teen friendships during the pandemic, many surveyed teens took the opportunity to make new friends online and were able to better appreciate their own company. However, consider this one response that might ring true for your own teen:

“As a result of my family’s stringent policies to protect ourselves from the virus, I have been unable to physically interact with my friends since March. Schoolwork, activities and an occasional Facetime were enough to keep my mind off the newfound loneliness. A few months later, as I scrolled through Instagram to discover all my friends back together again…as if a pandemic didn’t exist. A sense of emptiness began spreading through my stomach as I realized the growing rift that the coronavirus induced between my friends and me. I have barely talked to some of my best friends since school shut down earlier this year, and starting the new school year online, I feel that this loss of connection is only going to exacerbate as the virus continues to isolate me from my others.”

This quote is from the first year of the pandemic, but it likely reflects the experience of countless children and teens. If you yourself have experienced the loss of a friendship due to disagreements, your child will benefit from knowing you have been through something similar.

Sample script: Friendships are so hard to navigate, and I know that you never asked for your whole world to be changed like this. I'm sorry for how the pandemic changed how you're able to hang out with your friends, and that you haven't been able to see them as much as you like. I know that I never went through this same experience at your age, but I have lost friendships in my life – sometimes just from not being able to get on the same page. I pray that you'll be able to spend time with your friends again, and I'm here for you.

Celebrating your child’s resilience

With so much uncertainty, anxiety and adversity, your child may not recognize how amazing it is that they have navigated two full years of the biggest historical chapter of their lives thus far. They may not recognize that they are learning an invaluable trait: resilience.

Your child has practiced resilience in a number of ways, and that’s something you can celebrate as well. First, they have learned to adapt to a new style of learning and schooling, which requires significant self-discipline. Secondly, through putting the safety of others above their own enjoyment, they have learned to stay strong and make sacrificial choices.

In the article Raising resilient kids, author Vance Fry notes that “everyone is born with a measure of resiliency, and it can be nurtured or hindered by life situations.” Though the learning process may be painful, building that resilience is valuable, Fry explains, in that it teaches children to identify solutions to a problem, and empowers them to take responsibility for solving problems they will meet in the future.

As your child faces another year of the pandemic, be sure to celebrate their strength and resilience. Above all, remind them of God’s love and grace and strength to carry them through every difficult chapter – just like he already has.

Sample script: These two years have been so hard, and I can't imagine going through my childhood the way you have had to. I know how crazy it was to have all of us at home together with work and school. I want you to know how strong you are, and how proud of you I am. Thank you for your patience as we all learned to adapt, and please forgive me for the times that I did not respond kindly. I pray that God will continue to use these times to grow our faith and bring us closer together as a family. I see your resilience, and I know you will do just fine, whatever the future may hold. I love you.

We hope that you will be reassured as you explore what your child is thinking and feeling at this two-year milestone. If you would like to discuss anything that troubles you about your child’s response or your family’s situation, don’t hesitate to call Focus on the Family Canada at 1.800.661.9800 for a free, one-time consultation with one of our professional counsellors.

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Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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