Parents should take a slow approach with kids who fear reentry after COVID shutdowns

Virus Outbreak Vaccine Kids
Posted at 5:55 PM, May 26, 2021

Summer activities are kicking off and the world is reopening. Museums, libraries, pools and amusement parks are bustling again with crowds.

Although that may be exciting for some, there are many people — including many children — struggling with the fear of getting back to a “normal” life after a year in isolation.

“Hesitancy is definitely a factor in a lot of students," said Dr. Ritch Hall, a clinical psychologist at Miami University Student Counseling Center. “There are many students who are eager to get out of the house and back to their peers and then there are others who have heard the fear. Children are very susceptible to fears that adults put out, so when there is a global situation happening, it's bigger than anything they understand."

Hall has even seen this scenario play out in his own household.

“I've got one kid who is ready to get out of the house,” he said. “I've got my older kid who is like, 'I don't know about ever stepping into the world again.' It's a matter of temperament, really."

Temperament and worldwide lockdowns have made a real impact on how children are interacting with each other. A global study from Save the Children found that half of kids surveyed said they play outside with friends less and a third said they play alone more.

As reentry in to society begins, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital psychologist Kimberly Schubert said it’s important for parents to recognize signs of anxiety caused by the pandemic, how to respond and when to call in help.

"It can be behavioral challenges: yelling, screaming, running off from the park,” Shubert said. “And when things get that extreme, (it can require) kind of really pulling things back and maybe reaching out for some support from other therapists or therapy providers."

Shubert said other signs of anxiety include physical symptoms like a child saying they have a headache, stomachache, not feeling well or even breathing problems and sweaty hands. She said parents know their children best, and it’s good to promote talking about their feelings openly.

“If they say, 'I'm really scared' or, 'I don't know what's going to happen,' talking to them about how they're feeling if they're nervous or anxious,” she said. “Also modeling kind of effective communication in that situation. Like, ‘Yeah, it is really scary if we're going into this situation at Kings Island where there are lots of people, I would be nervous too.’”

Shubert also recommends not diving headfirst into activities that involve lots of people or take a lot of time away from the house. A gradual approach is the best way to curb anxiety.

"The recommendation would be that they start very slowly,” she said. "For example, just going for five minutes and then gradually progressing up. So three days you go five minutes. The next time you go three times for 15 minutes and the next time you go for 30 minutes."

Even if a kid is anxious, the slow gradual reintroduction will be good for them in the long run, said Hall.

"I do think it's vital we do get kids out,” he said. “Kids kind of need to get that energy out, it helps them to be healthy both mentally and physically. So it is very valuable that they have these experiences. Get out of the house, go to see movies in the park or go see music being performed or spend some time in a movie theater."

Hall said vaccines represent promise and ultimately mean that people can be comfortable being around other people.

“In that way, if children are able to get a vaccination, you are able to give them some objective kind of proof that they will be safe, and kids often need assurances,” Hall said.

Sycamore Junior High student James McKernan felt that reassurance first-hand when kids ages 12 to 15 got FDA clearance to get their first shot of the Pfizer vaccine two weeks ago.

"I’m really happy because I feel like in five weeks I can finally vacation again and go on playdates and sleepovers,” he said.