As a mental health therapist, the most frequent question I get asked is “Am I normal?” As a parent, every parent I know asks the same question. No matter what we experience as parents, we want to know that we’re not alone. We want to know that our pandemic experiences are normal and our children will be normal after this is over. We worry that they will continue to be anxious about their health or unable to communicate with people their age. We wonder if the excess screen time has completely stunted their growth.

My daughter, who was born in July 2020, has never been in social situations with other children. As a therapist, I know that she will develop the resilience to overcome this. As a mother, I worry that we have somehow damaged her social and emotional growth by trying to protect her physical health. Most of the parents I know express similar sentiments.

My goal is for all of us to feel less alone in our anxiety about returning to society and describe some ways to cope with the challenges our families will face.

I’ve stopped referring to life after the pandemic as “returning to normal” because so many things are going to be different for our families. As parents, none of us have had good choices to help our children grow their social skills. We’ve also seen our own social skills atrophy. Our lack of social development is causing us all to feel anxious about life on the other side and whether we’ll ever be able to create “normal” for our families. My goal is for all of us to feel less alone in our anxiety about returning to society and describe some ways to cope with the challenges our families will face.

Everyone is Uncomfortable Somehow

All of us have seen our social circles shrink and modified our social skills to accomplish social distancing. The necessary changes to protect our physical health have varied greatly by socioeconomic status, but we’ll all have to navigate new social norms when the pandemic ends.

We All have Similar Questions

Many of the parents I work with struggle to know how to interact with other adults and children in our new social contexts. Just like video calls were awkward at first, in-person interactions are going to be weird as well. I’ve received questions ranging from “Do we continue to wear masks in flu season?” to “How many strangers are too many strangers?” and “Do play dates and after-school activities look the same without a vaccine for children?”

Weirdness is Universal

For the majority of children under the age of 10, wearing masks and limited contact with people outside their pod is their normal. Most children under the age of 3 will not remember much, if anything, about life before the pandemic. For children in elementary school, up to 30% of their memory is contained within the pandemic. My pediatrician told me that most babies born during the pandemic are struggling to develop social skills, like waving, because they have not had enough social interaction. Needless to say, returning to socialization will be weird for everyone.

Be Kind to Yourself

As things open again, people will most likely choose one of two options:

  1. Resume everything they missed in the last year all at once, which could lead to overwhelm.
  2. Remain sheltered-in-place because deciding what to do next also feels overwhelming.

When the overwhelming emotions come, practice compassion with yourself and your children. When that happens, practice saying “It’s okay to feel this way” and find socially appropriate ways to express the emotion. Even babies respond well to a parent who speaks in calm tones and demonstrates deep breathing. This allows you to feel less overwhelmed and show your child that they’re free to express their emotions.

Find Your Boundaries

Hopefully, most people will be able to resume some social familiarity over the summer. Summer is still a busy time for vacations, parties, and extracurricular activities. Before you sign up for your old schedule of activities, take some time to evaluate your new priorities for your family. Your family changed over the last year and your new social life should reflect that. Ask yourself:

  • Who are the people in my life now?
  • What does my child miss doing?
  • Which activities are accessible given my change in resources (physically, mentally, financially)?
  • What am I dreading having to do again?

Saying No

Once you know what’s important to you, the challenge becomes saying “no” for you and your children. Boundaries will be different by age. For toddlers, we have to say “no” to the outside world for them, while still allowing them to feel autonomy in their world. For older children, boundaries require a discussion about how they feel and what they need each day.

Everyone’s Feelings Matter

Everyone has non-negotiable activities (school, work, daycare) but the extras can change based on our needs. While one child may be ready to spend time with more friends, their sibling may not. When this happens, listen to both children and their requests. It may be a challenge to meet both of their needs, but it’s important that both feel safe enough to say, “I’m uncomfortable.”

By giving yourself and your children the necessary space to express themselves and learn and make mistakes, your family will be able to cope with the challenges the “after times” will bring to us all.

None of Us Have the Answers

The most challenging part of parenting after the pandemic is all the unknowns (but that’s already like parenting in general, right?). We don’t know how our children will be impacted fifteen or twenty years from now. Most experts agree that children are inherently resilient but how we help our children develop resilience will vary greatly by each child. By giving yourself and your children the necessary space to express themselves and learn and make mistakes, your family will be able to cope with the challenges the “after times” will bring to us all.

Elise Champanhet is a Mental Health Therapist seeing individuals seeking physical, emotional, and mental wellness at Optimum Joy Clinical Counseling in the Greater Chicago Area.

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