How Parents Can Help Their Kids Navigate A Post-Vaccine World

school age boy wearing surgical mask

A psychologist has some great advice

As we transition into a new phase of the pandemic, many parents, and their kids, are wrestling with glimmers of hope and the uncertainty of what comes next. KCM connected with Dr. Becky Kennedy, a clinical psychologist, mom of three, and host of the new parenting podcast, Good Inside. She gave us an overview of what parents might be feeling right now, and how they can help their kids out as we transition back into picnics, playdates and trips to Grandma’s house. 

KCM: Could you describe some of the anxiety, or the feelings, parents, and children might be facing right now as we transition into a post-vaccine world? 

Dr. Becky: I’m hearing about a wide range of experiences right now. I think that people who have had two vaccines feel a little different from people who’ve had no vaccines, or people who’ve had a lot of frustration trying to get a vaccine. 

There’s a lot of hope that also sits next to depletion. I think parents still feel totally depleted. There’s something hopeful about vaccines becoming available, but I think parents are checking in and just feeling so exhausted. I think many just feel like everything’s being held together by a string. I think we’re still hypervigilant right now, and in general, a lot of parents don’t quite feel as good as they’d like.

Beyond parents, how do you think children are experiencing this time? 

Kids are so perceptive about changes in their environment. From an evolutionary perspective, they have to notice what’s happening around them and be very hypervigilant about it, because they’re so helpless, relative to adults. For kids, all changes are overwhelming, even if they’re “positive.” When kids don’t understand changes, they feel scared, because our body always kind of classifies a change as a threat, before someone explains to us what’s happening.

So we’ve told kids, for around a year now, “Stay inside, the world isn’t safe.” It’s important to just talk to your kid, explain to them why now they are able to see grandma and do things outside. 

I think what will help kids make this transition is if we’re really talking to them about what’s happening, versus kind of assuming that they can put it all together. 

How can parents ease their kids’ anxiety? 

One of the things we do, that’s very well-meaning but often has the reverse impact, is we try to convince our kids that they don’t need to feel anxious. 

But there’s nothing that makes someone anxious as much as someone trying to convince them why they shouldn’t feel anxious. That fills a kid with self-doubt. What you need to do instead is to say, “I believe you.” Validating and helping kids understand what is happening to them can help ease their anxiety.  

Kids who are really anxious get more confidence when they feel like it’s okay to be feeling the way they do, and feel like it’s okay to have their own timeline.

School is the biggest change that comes to mind for me. How do you recommend parents prepare their kids for maybe transitioning back into a different setting? 

I think it’s a mixed experience. If you’ve had a kid who has been virtual for a really long time at home, and now they’re in school, that’s a new separation. And kids draw safety from their attachment with their parents. So it could be anxiety producing for kids who are thinking, “Is it really safe again to separate?” And again, it just feels so new. It feels new to have to get on a bus and go to school. 

We underestimate that explaining things to kids is critical. It helps them understand and is necessary during this time. With school, parents could say something like, “You’ve been home with daddy the whole time, and you’re going to school tomorrow and getting on a bus, and we’re going to say bye for now.” Then prepare for it! Do a separation routine. Give them a picture of you to take during the separation. 

What do you think the long-term impact will be on kids who have lived during this time?

So I think the kids who had a supportive family environment through this, will probably come out with a lot of resilience. But I definitely think there will be some kids who they’re holding on to some anxiety from this time.

I think a lot of times when our kids are struggling, we look at the situation, and then we project to what it means to the future. And then we end up responding based on our fear rather than what’s in front of us. Say, for example, one of your kids doesn’t want to play on the playground with other kids. When fear kicks in, we’ll say, “Just go, it’s fine,” because we’re worried they won’t want to be social in the future. But it’s helpful to take a breath and get out of that future mode, to get back into what your child actually needs in that present moment.