Many parents and educators have expressed concern about the impact of the pandemic in the lives of children. The start of school raises numerous questions about safety and forces a discussion of priorities for parents and professionals entrusted with the care of their children. Any of us that want the best for kids understandably worry when our expectations are threatened by hardship. The protective instinct in most of us naturally seeks to anticipate and ward off threat before it inflicts harm on the innocent. This is often embodied in expressions like, “if I could take the pain from you I would,” a common sentiment when we see a loved one suffer. These are moments in which we realize it is easier to face challenges ourselves than watch the struggle in the eyes of someone we love.
These healthy, nurturing instincts also lead to “over-functioning” to remove threats and solve problems for children. In more extreme cases, terms like “helicopter parenting” or “snowplow parenting” have been used to describe overzealous interventions in which parents actually begin to interfere. Labels like these can be part of good-natured humor in trusted conversations, but they can also be used as derogatory comments to shame parents who are often reacting in their own fear. My goal is not to shame but to encourage parents and educators with reasons to hope in our children’s power rather than fear the circumstances.
A child’s life is filled with constant change and revelation, which may be one of the reasons we frequently emphasize the importance of stability and structure in their lives. The same expectation of change can also normalize the challenges so many of us have faced in the pandemic. Depending on each person’s perspective, we may express more fear of viral contagion or from the stifling feeling of wearing a mask. Some have protested the principle of being directed to wear a mask when we no longer want to be told what to do. Disagreements like this also provide opportunities to model healthy, respectful discussion between adults.
This brings us back to our discussion of children, they are used to being told what to do which makes it normal for them to follow our lead and even repeat the things we say. If our children complain about having to wear masks in school, it is appropriate and helpful to empathize with them and normalize their feelings by saying things like, “I don’t like the masks either, I’m eager for things to get back to normal too.” It is also important to encourage them with acceptance of things beyond their control by saying things like, “but if the school requires it or there is a chance it helps us not to get sick then let’s get a mask you like or feels comfortable.” A combined approach of empathizing with the child’s concern while prompting acceptance and adaptation can lead to solutions rather than being stuck in feelings of displeasure. We can offer hope to our children by urging trust in the heroic efforts of the teachers and educators who have worked to adapt to this unprecedented challenge. My guess is that most children will accept change much sooner than the adults around them.
Matthew Gallagher, LCPC