As the pandemic landscape shifts, what about the children?

Life hasn’t gotten back to normal. It’s just moved to another new normal.

In Toronto last week, students were told to take all their things home from their lockers at school. Every child now knows what it means – that school may not reopen right after the holidays and that lots of other changes could be in store. And while many adults had a honeymoon of sorts after getting vaccinated last spring – celebrating our new freedom by dining out, going to concerts and (finally) hugging our friends – the kids didn’t have the same months-long celebration. Within weeks of vaccines being approved for children aged 5 to 11 in Canada, Omicron became a greater threat and new restrictions, new concerns and new information stopped us all in our tracks.

Our current pandemic restrictions are reasonable and life-saving measures. But that doesn’t erase our feelings, nor our children’s feelings, about them. Many of our children (just like many of us) had been living with the hope that restrictions would soon end, and life would return to normal. Now we are facing an uncertain future, with trips canceled, extra-curricular sports and other activities suspended and extended-family visits tethered to our boosters as we wait in the queue.

It’s been a long pandemic, especially for children. How they fare in the next few months will be influenced by our responses, as parents, to the new new normal.

So, how should we as parents be responding? On my podcast, I recently spoke with Tyler Black, a Vancouver-based child psychiatrist and suicidologist, about children’s mental health and transitions during the pandemic. Black recommends that parents slow down and listen – really listen – to kids.

“I think it always starts with trying to find out from your child how they’re doing. Not listening and then applying your interpretation but listening and really trying to understand what it is they’re telling you.”

Our kids have a lot to share with us, but we need to reach out and ask. “Be humble about what you know about your kids and be very transparent with your kids,” he says. “If you’re worried, you don’t have to wonder, ‘Should I tell my child that I’m worried about this?’ They know. Just help them understand it.”

It is a long-standing parenting strategy to tell children that if they do the right thing and make sacrifices, a reward is just around the corner. Pandemics, it turns out, are trickier than that. In the face of a changing pandemic landscape, we may lose sight of the less-tangible reward – that vaccines still greatly protect us and our communities from illness and death. Despite the new presence of Omicron, getting vaccinated is still something for our families to celebrate.

Life hasn’t gotten back to normal. It’s just moved to another new normal.

We should also remember to celebrate our children’s bravery. In the booklet I co-wrote for autistic children back in the early days of the first wave, we framed safety measures as heroic and the kids as heroes, too. Now is a good time to remind children (and ourselves) of how hard we have worked, together, to save lives. Think about the sacrifices children have made these past two years and how resilient they have been. They’ve shown us true heroics. How can we be their heroes now, supporting them emotionally?

One way to support children right now, according to Black, is to ease up on academic pressures. He observes that in the frenzy of trying to get students “caught up” academically during the pandemic, their mental health needs have often been overlooked. Even worse, the pressure of academics can create a snowball effect of more stress, leading to mental health crises.

“The academic burden is enormous,” he says, noting that some of his patients in Grades 2 and 3 have as much as two hours of homework. “I’m seeing pressure for kids to work when they go to school and then work when they go home. Kids need to play.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to support my family during this new and difficult phase of the pandemic. This time around, I want to spend less of my energy in waiting mode. Instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, we need to connect more in the here-and-now. This winter, instead of getting our kids caught up, we need to be catching up with our kids.

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Anne Borden King

Deputy editor

Anne Borden King is a print journalist and the host of Noncompliant: A Neurodiversity Podcast

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