As this “school year” comes to a close, educators, students, and parents have a lot of thoughts and feelings to unpack and process. Undoubtedly, the last three months have been a struggle for everyone. Nothing about the last three months has been “normal,” yet we were all expected to juggle more tasks during this unprecedented time. In the parenting-during-covid arena, for most of us, it frequently felt like the end of the school year would never come. But here it is! School is finally done – and most of us feel great relief in shedding the role of teacher-parent.
Predominantly lost in all of this has been ample opportunity for most children to process their emotions. For those children that regularly saw the school counselor or school social worker, there are three months of unprocessed emotion boiling inside. And that’s assuming that some of it has boiled over. But there is still a backlog of emotion there and children who need support.
For the children who didn’t regularly see a social worker or therapist, this is a great time to check in on them. While most children have handled this situation like champs, you may be seeing a different child evolve through the pandemic. While finding a centered perspective felt darn-near impossible when your children were screaming at you (and perhaps, you at them), looking back on it, their whole world was turned upside down. For three long months: no face to face, physical play with friends; beloved sports and activities cancelled; special events postponed; and WAY MORE screen time than most are comfortable with. And to top that, they had their PARENTS as teachers.
COVID-19 has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Some were far removed from it and “only” dealt with it by way of the shelter-in-place order. For others, it was far more impactful as many individuals knew a family member or friend who had it: some recovered while others did not. Children, as well as adults, have a lot of unprocessed fears and grief to deal with.
Add to this weeks of protest and racial unrest. Children are always watching, listening and picking up on the concerns of family members as well as the world at large. It is likely hard for them to make sense of closed stores and chaotic emotionally charged scenes on television, or perhaps in their immediate neighborhood. For all of us, our sense of safety is shaken, and there is a lot to be figured out and understood in terms of all of the anger, pain, chaos and confusion. These are little people who have been given a tremendous amount to handle at one time. And the adults who care for them once again need to process and learn quickly to be able to support and teach about hard concepts such as racism.
I have thought about an article like this since last summer, when COVID-19 wasn’t even a thing. Summer vacations have historically meant a significant decrease in counseling attendance. Families have roughly three months to enjoy more free time, possibly travel out of town or participate in summer sports or activities. In my 12 years of counseling experience, parents can prioritize all of these other events over mental health. Unfortunately, our mental health does not take a vacation. A child’s anxiety, depression, defiance, ADHD, behavioral issues, and a plethora of other issues do not take a break just because we are not in our usual routine. At best, it is masked. Worse case, it gets bottled up and then the smallest thing unleashes all of it. Or maybe it just stays bottled up. No one is to blame. Kids want to do as many fun activities as they can before school starts again and parents can feel a pressure to make summer as much fun for their kids as possible.
I encourage you to speak to your children and see how they’re feeling. It doesn’t take a therapist to see how your child is handling life. Some issues are a little harder to see, for sure. When presenting the idea of therapy to a child, they may perceive it as punishment or that it’s required because “there is something wrong” with them. Reassure your child that a therapist is a neutral, understanding person and that therapy is a place “to get things off their chest”. If a diagnosis comes from it, that’s okay too. But therapy should be as big of a priority as all those other choices. If your child is seeing a therapist regularly, have a conversation with the therapist to see if reducing sessions over the summer is an option or if it could cause regression. If you feel that your child needs to see a therapist because of what we have been going through, but summer is here and you don’t want to throw a wrench in the summer plans “just to see a therapist,” think again. Our mental health is so important.
And let’s not forget about you, the adult. Adults often assume we have to be “strong” for our kids, even when we are challenged and struggling. Being a parent, it brings me great joy to think my kids see me as their Superman. But even Superman had Kryptonite. If we, as the adults, are not prioritizing our own mental health, it sends a message to our children that it isn’t important and it can be just swept under the rug.
We can be vulnerable. We can talk about our feelings. And yes, your mental health does not take a break during summer vacation. For each and everyone of us: It’s okay to reach out to talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a year long therapeutic relationship, but it could turn into one. Either way, it’s cool.
As we attempt to find a “new normal” over the next couple months, I wish everyone a wonderful summer. I hope you are able to enjoy the heck out of it, because we ALL deserve a vacation right about now. Be well.
Learn more about the author of this post: Jim Peltzer, LCPC