Are there any long-term mental health effects you anticipate seeing in children coming out of this pandemic? What can parents do to mitigate them?

I think the outcomes we want to try to prevent are children who become extremely cautious as a result of the pandemic. Their lives were hemmed in by the pandemic and I wouldn’t want to see children continue to lead highly constrained lives when that is no longer necessary, because it will deprive them of all of the variety that will help them to thrive and flourish.

The other outcome we want to watch for is children who missed a step academically. That needs to be addressed and lost learning needs to be made up. I worry that there are children whose academic lives have been knocked off their trajectory and who need and deserve academic, as well as social and emotional support, to get their learning back on track at a reasonable pace.

The way we prevent these outcomes is first to continue to urge children to spread their wings when it’s safe. If they’re feeling really nervous about moving back into the world we can remind them that they don’t have to do everything all at once. They can take small steps. We want to remember that, over time, avoidance feeds anxiety. Children have needed to avoid many things in the name of physical health. But in the name of mental health, once it becomes safe to be back in the world, it’s important that they start to return to the normal activities that go with childhood and adolescence.

As for the academic challenges, there’s a very big job to be done to understand what each child did and did not get at school, because the range of what was mastered — even in a single classroom — is enormous. Many children had a really difficult time learning during the pandemic, even those who had good access to online learning, which many did not. So the work ahead is to discern what children learned and what they didn’t, and to find ways to fill in the gaps so that having missed content during the pandemic doesn’t go on to undermine their education going forward.

How can parents find support if they are feeling anxious about letting their children spread their wings?

I think we need to acknowledge that parents missed developmental steps too. Under normal conditions, our children branch out into the world gradually. For parents, that gradual process is part of what makes it more comfortable for us to encourage our children to exercise their independence. One thing I think a lot of parents are struggling with right now is they have had their children and teenagers very close to home for a few years. And so it’s not easy as a parent to go from having your child very close to home to helping them gain the kind of independence that might be age-appropriate now. What I would encourage parents to do is to both help their children spread their wings, but also get support for how hard it can be to watch your child leave the nest.

One thing that can help is to talk with parents who raised children the same age as your child before the pandemic. Get reassurance from those parents about what 10-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 16-year-olds can be expected to do independently. Because when parents feel confident that a child can manage independently, it helps to build confidence in children that they can do things on their own.

>>Read: How to support your child through reopening

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