One for the Yearbooks: A Time to Process the End of Another School Year in a Pandemic
We have arrived at the end of another school year in a pandemic. Many of the meaningful traditions we look forward to this time each year may once again not be possible. As many schools move to re-create significant events like graduations and proms in order to follow safety guidelines, they may look and feel different than what we had hoped. Perhaps you and your children have arrived at this next marker in ways you never could have imagined prior to March 2020. Each new milestone we reach during this continued global experience creates opportunities for reflection and ways to honor both the individual and collective impact on our lives. This is particularly true for the younger members of our communities.
Children have spent a greater percentage of their lifetimes impacted by the pandemic than adults and, depending on their age, will have a different emotional, social, and cognitive understanding of their experiences. As we enter the final month of the school year for primary and secondary students, we can mark the passage of time and ease the transition by celebrating achievements, fostering resilience, and aiming to build a confident sense of self going forward.
As we work our way back to normal, we may find it exhilarating or terrifying or somewhere in between. What have we learned about ourselves and what do we want to teach our children? What have they taught us?
Every individual has had their own unique experience of this past year depending on developmental stage, connection to others within the family and community, and access to available resources. Children may have a different understanding than our own of how they navigated the year. By creating space for conversation, parents and caregivers can demonstrate empathy and explore a child’s thoughts and feelings about this past year. This can also be a way to cultivate the qualities and values you hope for your children to develop as they grow.
Open-ended questions are a wonderful way to help children understand their experiences and get to know themselves. Consider questions such as: How was this year different from what you expected? What new skills did you learn? What things did you discover about yourself and others? What do you wish could have been different? What were some good things that happened and what are you looking forward to this summer and next year? Feel free to share some of the positive things you observed about your child in these areas. This may also be an opportunity to share some of your own emotional experiences, as it relates to your child. This isn’t the time to focus on grades or assignments.
Listen and Acknowledge
We can all benefit from identifying and acknowledging emotions (our own and our children’s). Amid the many emotions that we continue to experience, we should also be aware of grief. We have all lost something or someone this year. Acknowledging grief can allow us to be deliberate about finding our own support system. We may also find it stirs up feelings from previous experiences with grief.
Encouraging children to express their own thoughts and opinions by responding to them without judgement helps them connect with you as they work to make sense of it all. It is helpful to know that what children express may change over time; this happens as they integrate their experiences into their sense of self and the world. Young children may describe things in black and white terms (not having playdates was “all bad” for example) or they may simply repeat what they hear others say. Older children and adolescents will make sense of the events more within the context of their peer group and may focus more on social connections made or lost.
Find Middle Ground/Stay Balanced
Children of all ages look to parents and adults as a way to make sense of the world and to check for safety (yes…even teens). This is important because the ways we talk about our own experiences from the past year may inform the emotions our children will have and potentially impact their behaviors and future understanding. For example, if we demonstrate either emotional extreme of outrage or intense fear re: school closure/opening/re-opening/etc., we fall into the trap of discounting our own agency in this challenging situation. Children may need help to understand (and we may need to remind ourselves) that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Avoid catastrophic language (like “online learning is the worst; you have wasted an entire year”), discussing only the things that were problematic, being harshly critical, or frequently comparing yourself with others.
For the vast majority of situations over the past year, we were all doing the best that we could do, based on the information available at the time. Faced with decisions that were less than ideal, we made it work. Modeling for our children how to tolerate uncertainty and adapt as things change is a life lesson worth learning (for all of us).
Highlight Positive Aspects of This Past Year
This past year presented many opportunities to develop valuable life skills such as flexibility, patience, emotional regulation, and resilience. Help children remember times in which they demonstrated these qualities and have them describe what it was like for them to do so. It is important to help all children and teenagers appreciate the good as well as what may have been challenging.
Was it nice to see everyone more often during the day? Were the mornings calmer because you weren’t running for the bus? Did you develop new traditions this year that would not have happened otherwise? Point out how your children were flexible, helpful, supportive, cooperative, and creative. Pay special attention to how they met the many expectations and obligations they had associated with school and other activities. This is a good time to tell them how proud you are, how much you love them, and that you make a good team who can handle whatever comes your way.
While the pandemic has affected all of us, it has not affected all of us equally. Black, Asian, and Latino families have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Research during and leading up to the pandemic suggests that adolescents, young children, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), and LGBTQ youth may be particularly vulnerable to negative mental health consequences of the pandemic, including anxiety and depression. Asian children may also be uniquely at risk of adverse mental health outcomes due to anti-Asian racism that has emerged during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, minority children were more likely to face barriers to accessing mental health services than white children. And structural racism itself has been associated with poor mental health outcomes.
It is critical that concerns about child and adolescent mental health raised while schools were closed this past year continue when schools are open. Our schools and mental health systems have been underfunded and under-resourced for too long and we have an opportunity to change that.
Increased attention to mental health is also an opportunity to decrease stigma around mental health services and it is imperative that we don’t perpetuate attitudes that undermine this fundamental aspect of psychosocial well-being. The long-term mental health impact of COVID-19 on our children is yet to be seen. Our children are always watching and listening. They see how we handle stress, how we treat other people, and how we deal with our feelings.
As vaccination numbers continue to rise and COVID numbers continue to decline, there is much that remains uncertain, but there is also hope on the horizon.
Let’s mark the end of the school year in a way that is special for all of us. This could be anything (from very basic to very elaborate): Display a framed picture taken this year in a prominent place. Share a pizza dinner and ice cream on the last day of school. Light some candles and make a toast. Create a playlist of music you found yourself listening to this year. You have shared this incredible year with one another — take time to honor all of it.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at the challenges of parenting during the summer, including for children under 12, and look ahead to the Fall.
Maura Dunfey, D.O. is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at our Paoli, PA and Wynnewood, PA Offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at email@example.com or 215-382-6680 ext. 7058.
Laurel Roe, M.S. CHR, LMFT is a Staff Therapist at our Bryn Mawr, PA and Paoli, PA Offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 4444.