The year 2021 has arrived, and the COVID-19 pandemic has not magically disappeared and let life return to the old normal. While there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, a great deal of uncertainty also remains, which poses a challenge to overwhelmed parents and children.
“As we head into 2021, parents around the world are wondering the same thing as our kids: ‘What now?’” Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist and author of “For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting,” told HuffPost.
“Our children look to us for guidance, and when we don’t have answers or solutions, it often elicits feelings of helplessness,” Cook said. “These feelings, in turn, can make us feel inadequate, anxious, stressed and manic in an effort to find the ‘golden ticket answer’ to help us and our children feel less out of control.”
Even though there aren’t simple answers to share, parents can continue to help their kids navigate these challenging times and speak honestly about their hopes for the future. Below, Cook and other therapists share how they talk about expectations for 2021 with their own children.
There’s a lot of hope.
“Give kids hope. With the rollout of the vaccine, at some point in 2021, our world will open up again. Kids will be able to go back to school and have face-to-face time with their peers. We’ll be getting back to some sort of normalcy sometime in 2021.” ― Jenny Yip, clinical psychologist and author
“We’ve talked about what a stinky year 2020 was and how we are planning for normality, and have validated that the new normal feels like it can’t come fast enough! ... Often, rather than expecting you to read the tea leaves, your child wants some assurance that you will be there for her, that life will eventually return to some semblance of normality, that she will be able to play with friends again, etc. Validate her worries about the situation, particularly if there are concerns about the virus and getting sick. It is a reality that we are living in hard times, but remember also to instill hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel!” ― Abigail Gewirtz, child psychologist and author of “When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids”
″[P]arents should paint a fair picture in a developmentally appropriate way. Being realistic with kids and delivering the message in a compassionate way will help kids to navigate their mixed emotions. Hope is important, too, so parents should remind their kids about the positive changes that are happening even using the rolling out of vaccines as an example.” ― Cindy Graham, licensed clinical psychologist
But we’ll need to keep being patient.
“It’s important to remind kids to be patient that the vaccine has just begun to roll out, and it will be a number of months before things will start to get back to where we were pre-pandemic. Since my kids are 3 years old, they can’t really understand what a vaccine is just yet, but I still explain it to them. I do not bend the truth to my children. To help them understand, I relate it to when they go to the doctor and they get a shot. I tell them that’s the important medicine they need to stay healthy. So, I say, people are just starting to get their medicine now, and it takes time because there are a lot of people. I’ve also explained to them that in LA, our hospitals are over capacity and therefore they have to be more careful during this time. It also means they cannot go back to school just yet.” ― Yip
Try to live in the present.
“Raising anxious kids has taught me one thing: to focus on today, not tomorrow. The same is true for 2021. I don’t want to make any false promises to my children. So much of life in general is living with doubt and uncertainty.” ― Natasha Daniels, child therapist and creator of AnxiousToddlers.com
“As a family, we’ve been focusing on getting through each day, celebrating the small things for which we are grateful and trying to support those in our community who have been hard-hit by the pandemic.” ― Gewirtz
We can make long term goals.
“We talk about some long-term goals but don’t make firm plans for it to necessarily happen in 2021. We discuss the desire to travel, what colleges my oldest will go to and what life will look like in general terms. When anxious thoughts spiral out of control, we reign it back in with a reminder that we can’t be 100% sure of what will happen in 2021.” ― Daniels
“I ask them to name three things they would like to do the most in 2021 if/when restrictions are lifted. Create a ‘floating plan’ with trip ideas, local activities (movies, parks, museums, barbecues, etc.) and put them on a ‘to-do’ board. This gives everyone something to look forward to as well as create excitement and buzz about the ‘when’ it happens rather than lamenting on the ‘if.’ Much excitement and positive energy can be found in the planning of trips.” ― Cook
“Most enjoyably, we talk about what we are going to do ‘once outside opens up.’ Whether it is visiting family and friends out-of-state, going to our favorite community places, or traveling internationally, we plan our future trips. We sometimes even go as far as to pack suitcases. It is a great way to create fun moments and bond during a year that may not be so different from the last.” ― Graham
There are joyful activities we can do right now.
“I encourage my children to schedule joyful activities (or we do them together) several times a week to look forward to ― because we can only do so much in terms of the future and planning. We need to have fun and enjoyable moments when and where we can, because those moments will continue to help carry us through all the stress we’ve gone through so far, and any stress that may be ahead. And practically, learning how to be playful and experience joy is a life skill we all need to master instead of solely focusing on productivity.” ― Claire Nicogossian, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and author of “Mama, You Are Enough: How to Create Calm, Joy and Confidence Within the Chaos of Motherhood”
You’ve already done such a good job.
“My kids (5 and 7) have asked off and on since March 2020, ‘When can we do normal things like go to the museum and visit our cousins?’ I’ve explained to them that while a vaccine has been developed and is being distributed, the virus is still not under control. One thing I’m doing to help my kids cope with the stark realities starting off 2021 is reminding them what an amazing job they’ve already done adapting and shifting to the new ways of life with COVID-19. ... I’ve been teaching my children to plan for the worst and hope for the best. If nothing else, this year has taught everyone things can get worse. That being said, this year has also had some amazing silver linings for many families. Working with your children to find silver linings during storms wire their brains for resilience. Remind them of all the ways they powered through 2020 and that they have the strength to make it a little longer.” ― Cook
We don’t know everything, but we do know some things.
“Resist the temptation to throw your hands up and say, ‘I have no idea!’ (even if you don’t have any idea what to expect). Instead, focus on what you know.” ― Gewirtz
“It’s OK not to know. For example, be truthful that you do not know when this pandemic will end, but know that researchers, the government, scientists and doctors are all working together to make sure everyone is safe.” ― Reena B. Patel, licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and author of “Winnie & Her Worries”
Teamwork is incredibly important.
“I’m reminding my children that there are still many variables up in the air that require humanity to cooperate (i.e. social distancing, wearing masks, limiting travel etc.) before we really know how soon or when this virus will get under control. I’m taking this opportunity to teach my kids about the importance and value of working as a team and what happens when ‘a few’ people choose to not follow the rules.” ― Cook
So is flexibility.
“I use the word ‘sometime.’ This teaches us to be flexible and understand that, yes, there might be a time frame given when we all can try and get back to normal, but in case that doesn’t happen by a set time, your child will be ready to adjust.” ― Patel
“Kids are adaptable. Parents often spend so much energy protecting their children from things that they believe their children cannot tolerate. This can actually limit the opportunity that kids naturally would have to build resilience and tolerance so that they can be better able to face challenges later in life.” ― Yip
It’s OK to still feel upset.
“When talking with children and teens about things going on in current events, their community, or with family and friends, the first thing to do is to allow your children and teens to feel without feeling a need to deny, dismiss or ignore. Just listen and hold space for them when they are sharing feelings and reactions to the pandemic and the fatigue of uncertainty. ... Do not remind them how grateful they are or that other people have it worse or make a judgement about their feeling. Of course you want kids to have perspective about privilege, resources and finances, but when they are vulnerable and sharing feelings, by doing so, you 1) create shame and guilt for having feelings that are natural to have, and 2) you also lose a bridge for them to open up to you in the future, because talking about our thoughts and feelings and inner world when judged by the outer world creates isolation.” ― Nicogossian
“I always validate their feelings first to let them know it is OK to have negative feelings about our current situation. And I always provide lots of praise for the ways they have showed strength, resiliency, and patience.” ― Graham
We can always help others.
“Keep the conversations about the blessings and gratitude in a separate conversation. For example, when eating a meal or going out to buy groceries or getting new clothes or shoes or having a parent available to help them with school during the day, you can simply pause and reflect and highlight gratitude and ask if they have any ideas or thoughts on how to help those who may not have access to resources or a parent who can help with online learning. Ask your child what they notice in terms of differences in the pandemic (support, resources, etc.) with their peers and you’ll learn a lot about what they are picking up on distance learning. By asking open-ended questions on this, I’ve learned a lot about what my girls are observing, and I get their perspective on the inequality and disparities within the pandemic. This can be an opportunity to share in a nonjudgmental way what you’re grateful for and appreciate in your family’s situation. You can problem-solve a plan to help or offer support to those in the community and larger world as an action of connection and humanity.” ― Nicogossian
This is an opportunity to keep building resilience.
“If I could give anything to a child, it would be coping skills. Life is and will be full of downs. We have to be realistic and teach our children that there are ways to cope with stressful situations. Resilience helps kids navigate these stressful situations. A child who is resilient has the confidence to confront their worries. As parents, we need to show them ways they can cope. Even as young as 3, children should begin to learn techniques to navigate through everyday stressors. For my own children, I use this moment as a teachable moment. I want to teach my children to be resilient. The goal for me is for my children to develop grit.” ― Patel
We all cope in different ways.
“I have four daughters, ranging in age from 10 years old to 18. I am parenting through many different developmental stages and ages, each with unique challenges academically, emotionally and socially. On top of their developmental stages, each of them, like all children, have individual differences in personality, worries, interests, social needs, mental health issues and ways to cope with stress. ... As a psychologist-mom, one of my core values is to teach my children how to take care of their mental, emotional, social, physical and spiritual parts of themselves. They’ve learned the importance of self-care and being aware of when they’re stressed, overwhelmed, what actions they need to do to take care of themselves and stay healthy. During stressful times, and more now than ever, I am routinely asking my girls to self-reflect and highlight their strengths — how they are making efforts, what they feel good about and have a sense of accomplishment and purpose ― and reminding them of these strengths. The second part is asking them to pay attention to what they’ve learned about themselves during 2020 and what they want to build upon or perhaps let go of. Every experience, especially stressful and challenging times, creates an opportunity to reflect and find a moment of wisdom and understanding to use in the present moment and in the future.” ― Nicogossian
Answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.