Six ways to help kids regain a sense of purpose

Phyllis Fagell

THE WASHINGTON POST – When the pandemic prevented a young aspiring cartoonist from attending art camp last summer, she was devastated. But when her mother told her she could go this year, the 12-year-old balked. “I’ll just stay home,” she shrugged. “They’ll probably have to shut down again.” Although some children will dive into school and activities with enthusiasm as the pandemic lets up thanks to an increase in vaccinations, others will be more guarded.

“We’re wanting a child to run, but in my view, children almost need to walk again in terms of negotiating life,” said professor emerita at Teachers College at Columbia University Suniya Luthar, and co-founder of Authentic Connections, an organisation devoted to fostering resilience. “We need to ensure they’re not unhappy, distressed or nervous about meeting friends before we can expect them to get passionate about the saxophone again.”

With time and targetted support, even the most apprehensive child can once again experience full and joyful engagement. Here are six ways parents and caregivers can ease kids back into life and help them regain a sense of purpose.

CREATE A REALISTIC PLAN FOR TRANSITIONING

Children may feel both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the idea of resuming a more structured routine as life begins to re-open. “A certain amount of inertia can set in after being in this state of paralysis,” said psychologist and professor at the University of Arkansas Tim Cavell.

Start by determining where a child is right now, then come up with a realistic transition plan, said psychologist with the Montefiore Health System in New York Ryan DeLapp.

Ask questions such as, “What are the emotions you’re having right now?” “What are your expectations?” and “Where do you expect your comfort level to be in the next month if you just stick it out and give it your best shot?”

Once children have a plan in place, assess their progress weekly. If they continue to be anxious, avoidant, flat or discouraged, they may need support from a mental health professional. But things could go better than expected.

GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO HOLD ON TO WITH CERTAINTY

Children may resist making plans, because life has been unpredictable, and they don’t want to risk disappointment. As Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind and author of 13 Things Strong Kids Do: Think Big, Feel Good, Act Brave, Amy Morin said, “the rules have changed 800 times, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will be able to do something”.

Model cautious optimism, and let your child see you push yourself. “It might just be that you’re getting coffee with a friend, and say, ‘I was looking forward to this, but now that it’s here, it feels weird and I’m nervous’,” Morin said. Afterward, you can tell your child, “You know, that was more fun than I thought it would be.”

To foster hope, give children the gift of anticipation. Ask them what they’ve missed or what they look forward to doing, then design an activity around their interests. Plan something you believe can happen, then talk about it regularly to build excitement. My 13-year-old son loves baseball and wants to see the Washington Nationals play again, for example, so we bought tickets to attend a game after he’s vaccinated.

ADDRESS SOCIAL AWKWARDNESS AND INSECURITY

Normalise that many children have a lower tolerance for emotional discomfort and are feeling self-conscious, whether it’s because their weight changed, they forgot how to enter a conversation, or they worry their friends are no longer their friends.

Many children have lost connections from before the pandemic, and that could make it harder for them to trust one another, said co-author of Hacking School Discipline Brad Weinstein. “I think there will be a breakdown in their ability to co-exist and work with the emotions of their peers while managing their own emotions,” he said. “They might tailspin things that they would have recovered from easily before.”

To help a child with the social piece, review basic social skills. Morin will tell kids, “If you’re frustrated, then it’s probably not the best time to have a conversation. If you’re irritable, your fuse isn’t as long, so you need to ask yourself how you can lengthen your fuse a little bit.”

That might mean doing a breathing exercise, giving themselves a self-hug or watching a funny video.

Remind children to make eye contact and take turns talking. “I use the analogy of volleyball,” DeLapp said. “You keep the ball on your side for three taps, and then send it over.” The three taps are about elaborating on responses, giving more information and sharing details. Sending the ball back over is about asking open-ended questions and keeping the dialogue going.

PRIORTISE FUN, HUMOR, PLAY AND CONNECTION

By the end of their first week back in the school building this spring, some students had their heads down, said Principal James Allrich of Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It wasn’t, ‘I’m tired of being here tired’,” he said. “It was, ‘I need more rest’ tired’.”

As exhausted children negotiate fuller days, adults will need to crank up the joy and connection. Allrich added a long wellness break that includes recess and cohort time when students can play games together. He got hula hoops and organised a competition for students. Then, he entered the contest. “I thought I could hula hoop,” he said, “but they must make hula hoops different these days.”

Children are going to need that type of funny, playful interaction with adults, said author of Beyond Behaviors Mona Delahooke. “The highest form of safety in humans comes from play, and the best neural exercise is playful engagement,” she said.

HELP THEM PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION

A high-achieving teenager was upset that his GPA had dropped from a 3.9 to a 3.5 during the pandemic, so DeLapp started asking him questions, including, “When is the last time you had experience going through a pandemic?” and “How often have you had to teach yourself to do things on your own?” He wasn’t trying to dismiss the boy’s concerns; he wanted him to appreciate that the novelty of the situation demanded tremendous adjustment.

When you talk to your child, listen for the “yeah, but”. Children will tell DeLapp, “‘It’s been hard, but there are other people doing better’. There’s this disqualifying, more negative thinking that gets accentuated after the but,” he said. Say, “We’ll get to that, but let’s focus on what’s before the but. How has that complicated your goals or expectations? What are the feelings you’ve had?” Children can cheer themselves on by writing themselves a kind letter or by creating a catchphrase, such as, “You’ve got this,” or, “All I can do is my best,” Morin said. They also can soften self-criticism by using sentence starters such as, “I had a harder time because,” or, “It makes sense that.”

“It’s not saying that grades don’t matter,” DeLapp said. “It’s being able to say, ‘Yes, I struggled, and my grades are lower, and let me have a more balanced picture of why this happened’.”

WORK FROM THE OUTSIDE IN TO REACTIVATE INTERESTS

Emotions typically move people to take action. But if children struggle with depression or low motivation, they may need to work from the “outside in” instead of the “inside out”, DeLapp said. By doing what they used to enjoy, children may be able to rekindle dormant interests.

Simply adhering to a schedule can have an activating effect, said education consultant and author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal Rick Wormeli. “Going through the rigmarole of getting dressed, taking a shower and engaging in the world can cultivate a vitality that wasn’t there, because it was trumped by passivity.”

When children resume their routines, they’ll also experience micro-connections that they might have missed, such as “seeing someone on the way to lunch, riding the bus, talking to a teacher who isn’t their teacher or seeing the person who greets them at the door”, Weinstein said. These interactions are socially rewarding and may motivate them to seek out more.