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How to help kids return to the new new normalcy

COVID-19 public health requirements are changing. How can parents help their children navigate the transition?

For many parents, the past two years have centered around two words: new normal. Whether you were helping your young kids log on to Zoom due to school closures, or asking yourself whether it would be warm enough to hold Thanksgiving dinner outdoors, parents took on the complicated and often complex work of setting expectations, managing risk and preparing your children for experiences that none of us might have anticipated.

Teaching your two-year-old how to wear a mask? Done.

Setting up a weekly FaceTime session with the grandparents? On the calendar.

Helping your six-year-old stay calm during their COVID-19 vaccination? Well — you did your best with that one, and everyone got a special treat afterwards.

But what can parents do now that we’re transitioning to a new new normal? How can you prepare your children for experiences they might not have had since early 2020, such as dining indoors, visiting a museum or going to a movie theater?

Some kids may be both ready and eager to navigate the world mask-free, hugging friends and reconnecting with relatives. Other children, especially those who might have trouble remembering life prior to mask mandates and social distancing, might be afraid of getting sick or anxious about getting too close to other people.

We asked Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist who specializes in parenting and child development, how you can help your family get through this summer with as little anxiety — and as little risk — as possible. Kennedy-Moore is the author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem, and offered several insights into helping your children build these all-important skills.

In this article:

Model the behavior you want to see

The best way to help your children transition to the new new normal is by giving them a positive example of what this transition looks like. In other words — and many parents will already be very familiar with this phrase — you need to model the behavior you want to see.

“Kids look to their parents to see whether they should be scared,” Kennedy-Moore told us. “If we as parents are calm and confident, then it’s easier for kids to be the same.”

Consider this ahead of time: If you are uncomfortable eating mask-free in an indoor restaurant, for example, your children will pick up on that — and they’ll either imitate your behavior or act out against it, which can make dinner less pleasant for everyone.

That said, if you have personal reasons for not wanting your family to interact in public spaces this summer — perhaps because a loved one or family member is immunocompromised, or because one or more of your young children aren’t old enough to receive the covid 19 vaccine — the same advice applies. Model the behavior you want to see, whether that includes wearing masks in stores or restaurants, or standing six feet away from strangers.

“Exactly what that looks like will be different for different families,” Kennedy-Moore explains.

Whatever you choose to do, make sure you do it with confidence — that way, your children will learn how they can confidently behave.

“Kids look to their parents to see whether they should be scared. If we as parents are calm and confident, then it's easier for kids to be the same.”

—Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, clinical psychologist and author

Talk to your children about risk and reward

Some kids may have a lot of questions about COVID-19 public health requirements. Why did they need to wear masks last month, but not this month? Is it still possible to contract or spread the coronavirus? What will happen if they get sick? Is COVID over?

As a parent, you may have the difficult job of explaining to your children that yes, COVID is still out there and yes, we’re choosing to put our masks away this summer. If your children are old enough, you can show them public health data that illustrates lower case counts and fewer hospitalizations. You can also discuss the levels of protection you already have, such as vaccines , boosters and — in some cases — the natural immunity your family may have picked up from your bout with Omicron last winter.

Kennedy-Moore suggests framing it as a conversation about risk and reward. “We’re not going to get 100 percent certainty, so we’ll have to aim for reasonable caution,” she says. “Just as we drive, knowing that there’s a small possibility of an accident, we need to think about the small risks that we feel are worth accepting.”

By focusing on the rewards your children will receive — the trip to the museum, the pizza party, the plane flight to visit the grandparents — you can help them put the risks into perspective.

Help your kids reframe their anxiety

Some kids are naturally more anxious than others — and even typically confident kids may feel uncomfortable letting go of the behaviors and routine that they have been told will keep them safe.

“If your child is scared, empathize,” says Kennedy-Moore. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now about what is and isn’t safe, and transitioning from doing nothing to doing something can feel scary.”

Kennedy-Moore suggests helping your child name and reframe their stress and anxiety, using phrases like “You’re feeling scared about doing this because you don’t know what to expect” or “You’re feeling nervous because you’ve never done this before. That’s completely understandable. I bet a lot of other kids are nervous, too.”

By letting your children speak honestly about their fears, you can validate realistic concerns and deflate less realistic ones. You also give your children the ability to reframe anxiety not as something to avoid, but something to understand and learn from.

“Anxiety isn’t a stop signal,” says Kennedy-Moore. “It’s a sign we’re doing something new or challenging.”

Prepare your family for future changes

There’s one more factor that parents need to be prepared for — and that’s the possibility that public health recommendations may continue to change. A mask-free summer could turn into a fully-masked fall, for example.

This is where the risk-reward conversation can be helpful. When activities such as indoor restaurant dining are low risk, you might explain, your family will try to participate in those activities as often as possible. If those activities become higher risk, you’ll participate less often — or avoid them entirely.

Teaching your children how to navigate these kinds of changes not only makes them more sensitive to public health concerns, which is an important part of being a good neighbor and good citizen, but also helps young children build the kind of resilience necessary to become a confident, successful adult.

“You want to express faith in your child’s strength and ability to do things even when they feel scared,” Kennedy-Moore explains. She suggests telling your child something like the following: “I know you can do this. I know you’ll get through it, and it will become easier for you.”

That’s what we’ve been telling ourselves, after all — as we transitioned first to the new normal, then to the new new normal, and now to whatever may come next in your children’s lives.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

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