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How to Worry Less Over What the Pandemic Has Cost Your Kids

Many parents are now asking, "Will my kids ever catch up?"

Key points

  • Resilience is not an individual characteristic, but rather that of a child's environment.
  • Parents who partner with the school to strengthen their child's social-emotional development can mitigate the pandemic's effects.
  • Books are a great way to teach children important social-emotional skills in a way they will understand.

Sam's mother showed me a Washington Post piece stating that many teachers are concerned about how behind preschoolers and pre-K children are in the life skills necessary to succeed in the classroom. “Should I be worried about this or is Sam resilient enough?” she asked.

The “this” Sam’s mother was referring to was a narrative describing young kids who came to first grade this year unable to tie their shoes or manage scissors, and kindergartens who couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes at a time, raise their hands to talk or wait their turn to pet the rabbit. The teachers had expected some delayed numerical and language skills but instead found themselves dealing with more squabbles and spats than usual. To them, these kids seemed to have less social and emotional competence than their peers pre-pandemic.

Her question about Sam’s resilience was a good, but complicated one. Many people, including mental health professionals, talk about resilience as though it’s something some people are born with, and some aren't. We now know that it is not an individual characteristic, but rather the environment in which the child is growing that is resilient or not. It derives from the interaction between the genes he or she is born with and the daily experiences that awaken or silence those genes; yes, our experience is the architect of our brains.

Sam is fortunate enough to live in one of those resilient environments, with its loving and involved mom, dad, and grandparents. But that does not mean he can skip over the pre-determined and required step-stones of his own social-emotional or intellectual development. Pressuring our young children to skip over a few stones and “get back on track” ignores this essential truth and will just make them feel that adults have lost touch with what they need in order to manage everyday life.

How to support your child's social-emotional development

So, what’s a parent to do? Here are a few tips to help you worry less while supporting your children as they regain normalcy and continue their social-emotional development:

  1. Don’t indulge in the discouraged anxiety that is spreading in your information streams. It helps no one be a “better” parent and risks eroding your belief in your power to promote their growth and well-being.
  2. Partner with your child’s school to ensure a close home-to-school connection. Ask how to support their engagement in strengthening the social and emotional aspects of your child’s classroom life. You can help them practice some of those life skills. But make it fun—not homework.
  3. We are all back on our heels these days, and our young children are no different. Yes, they are growing like stink compared to us, but they need our patience and reassurance that they will be fine and wonderful more than did their predecessors. So, count to 10, share the load with your partner, and try not to overprotect. They still need to learn how to manage the things in life that distress them (in manageable doses).
  4. Books are a great way to teach children important social-emotional skills in a way they will understand. If there is an elementary school near your child’s school, suggest that their fifth-graders become “reading buddies.” The Robert Morris School in Philadelphia (mentioned in the Post article) and the school our kids attended worked out a schedule where fifth-graders paired with first-graders, and even some kindergarteners, to read aloud together. Both groups came out better for it.
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