A year and a half is a very long time for a child. For much of the COVID-19 pandemic, schooling meant sitting in front of a screen. Parents helped young children talk to grandparents who lived inside a phone. Even playgrounds were closed. There are kids who haven’t seen their best friends in well over a year.

But things are changing. Now that the school year has begun, kids of all ages need help making sense of this next chapter. Everyone will be seen again, if only just above their masks, and students in my (Lindsey Antin’s) counseling practice have all the feelings about it.

Parents can help their kids by understanding the developmental stages they are in, and understanding that authoritative parenting strategies that are grounded in providing both warmth and support—as well as clear and appropriately high expectations—will greatly help their children’s social-emotional development.

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Now is a chance to understand some challenges our kids are going through, and how to help them enter this next chapter. While much of our adult lives might have felt on hold until recently, our kids have been growing up all along. Whether your child is in a funk or still enjoying the return to school, parents can help their kids become more conscious of their capacity at each developmental milestone in the context of a pandemic that isn’t over yet.

Elementary school kids: Help them feel competent

Our youngest kids are in the important psychosocial stage of developing competency—the sense that they’re capable of carrying out the tasks they face both in the classroom and at home every day. This year, they are learning how to be a student in person again, with all of the behavioral expectations that come with being in a classroom environment.

For many children, this is a big change from pandemic living when they may have not changed out of pajamas, played with fidget spinners in Zoom school, or even got used to snacking all day or turning off their cameras when uncomfortable or bored.

Our elementary school kids are hopefully thriving back in their classroom settings more than any other age group. As parents, we can recognize that there may be a honeymoon phase from the return to school that can fade several weeks in, resulting in fatigue, emotional outbursts, and unusual meltdowns.

We can make space for them in this chapter of their lives by recognizing that social-emotional learning is sometimes two steps forward and one step back. We can consider whether they may be getting all they need from their school environment. For example, playdates or other extracurriculars may have been on hold for some families, and with the return of school, parents might miss the fact that kids are seeking more one-on-one playtime with friends or other social time. Families should discuss whether their elementary-aged kids would benefit from playdates, a sports lesson—or, on the flip side, more quiet time or family time. Not one size fits all.

Parents of elementary ages can:

  • Encourage their competency by helping them set up routines that work with their personalities. If they have regular homework or reading time, let them set a schedule or location to perform these tasks. Give them simple timers or alarm clocks to keep track of time.
  • Talk with your kids about what it’s like to be at school as a way to provide information about whether your kids may need help making friends, scheduling playdates, or even just having quiet time because lunch is so busy (any other kids out there come home with uneaten lunches?). Look for opportunities to be involved with your child’s school, even if in-person volunteering isn’t yet allowed, and talk about what you do with your child.
  • Create open, no-pressure invitations to socialize with other families by visiting a park and letting your class know what time you’ll be there in case they want to join.

We can also help elementary students feel grounded and gain competence with these questions:

  • Who did you eat lunch with today? What did you do at recess?
  • Is there anyone you would like to play with on the weekends?
  • Do kids at school have a place to go when they need quiet time? Do you need that at home?

If you get one-word answers, try shifting to the same question but about their friends. Ask them what other kids do at lunch, who talks a lot in class, and so on. It can be easier for some kids to talk about their peers. But don’t give up if they don’t have a lot to say at first!

Middle school: help them understand themselves

Our middle schoolers are at an exciting and awkward and blossoming time in life. One of their key focuses during this age is identity development—who they are and who they want to become.

Middle schoolers can be especially curious, passionate, closed off, and unpredictable. What is important to one set of middle schoolers may be boring to another. Middle schoolers begin defining themselves by whom they spend time with, what activities they are diving deeper into, and branching out from their families.

Boys and girls are often at very different stages; my experience with middle schoolers has been that eighth-grade girls and sixth-grade boys are the ones who especially benefit from a little extra attention. Girls need help with emotional regulation, and boys need help putting language to feelings and forming bonds with friends and adults who can encourage their emotional development. Middle schoolers are developing their personal identity as well as their group identity among friends (both who they are and which groups they choose to belong to).

Middle schoolers are starting to have profound conversations with their peers that aid in this identity development. They may be paying more attention to the news, which often involves deep questions about complex situations and learning of tragedy. With the pandemic touching all of us in some way, middle schoolers may be hearing for the first time of friends who lost loved ones. They also are likely to begin using some form of social media in middle school, and may discover things about each other that we can help prepare them for. We can help middle schoolers to have these types of experiences by tapping into their capacity for compassion.

Parents of middle schoolers can:

  • Prepare their children for increased contact with the outside world by talking about the news, subscribing to kid versions of magazines, and having regular conversation about topics they show interest in.
  • Ask about and normalize changes in adolescence from puberty. Kids are being seen again after many months, and whether it is braces or bras, many physical milestones happen during middle school.
  • Take initiative to help students, especially boys, make social plans. Open plans with family as backup are helpful to take pressure off kids from invites that don’t get accepted.

You can help middle school kids socialize with fleeting group dynamics by asking these questions:

  • Let’s do a family pizza and movie night outside. Who else can we invite? Or: Can I drop you and two friends off downtown tomorrow for a couple hours while I run some errands?
  • Who do you sit with at lunch, and what is everyone talking about? What world topics do you care about right now?
  • Who do you remember from Zoom who is different in person than you thought?

Middle schoolers may be chatty one day and silent the next. They are processing a lot of information, so parents who can be consistent in their curiosity regardless of mood will help keep a stable baseline for them.

High school: Help them find independence, belonging, and purpose

High schoolers seek independence, and after a year of being stuck at home off and on, they are ready to get out there.

Except that so many of them are not. I’ve spoken with teens who are afraid to remove their masks at lunch and those who are disheartened to realize the same social dynamics haven’t gone away (e.g., social climbing, being iced out at lunch, exclusive gatherings—that are still posted widely on social media). Our teens are caught between what is ingrained in them (seeking novelty and autonomy) and what chains them to social norms and judgment.

Peer acceptance and social status are the most important things in teen’s lives. They are wired for social connection. For much of the past year and a half, this has existed almost entirely online. In-person socializing takes different skills and requires different coping strategies.

Recently I had a high school student tell me that his mood was such that “if it had been a year ago I would have turned my video off all day.” How can we as adults help students like this cope with that feeling? We need to help our high schoolers deal with everything from the pace of social interactions (very different than Snapchat) to the intense fear of judgment that has always been present in high school.

Parents of high schoolers can:

  • Talk to them about the past two years they’ve missed in preparation for what is still ahead. Students may be stuck in their missed opportunities from the pandemic and say things like “my junior year is already done” or “it’s too late to join this club or team.” We can help them develop new purpose in their life looking ahead to college and the opportunities they do have.
  • Encourage their desire for independence by communicating as a family shared expectations and letting students choose their methods to achieve them. This can involve home and school responsibilities, involvement in sports or charity, and screen time.
  • Foster their need for belonging by creating invitations to socialize without pressure. Expect some pushback by bored teenagers who think parent ideas of fun are stupid. But do it anyway.

Here are some questions that will help high schoolers take action that is congruent to their values:

  • Do you remember those days in Zoom school when you or others had their video off? What do you do when you feel like that now?
  • What is lunch like at school? Do you like the social norms at play? Do you talk about this with friends?
  • Tell me more about what news you’re paying attention to.
  • What are you dreaming about? How can we break your dream into smaller action steps?

High schoolers at this time have returned to some of the same topics that plagued us all, pandemic or not. They still benefit from family time, including family dinners, attending sibling sporting events, and college planning with their parents.

Our kids have gamely waded through the past 18 months as we adults figured out how to adapt and interpret the world for them. Fortunately for everyone, the return of school and having our kids back into the world should mean a chance for all of us to remember the importance of communicating well and meeting our kids where they are at.

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