Using “Special Time” to Connect with your Child and Improve their Behavior

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At times, you may feel you’re trapped in a cycle of negative interactions with your child. To break the cycle, it may seem logical to target the unwanted behaviors with consequences such as time outs. However, research shows that focusing on increasing positive behaviors is more effective. These two approaches may sound similar in theory, but they are vastly different in practice.

It may feel difficult to focus on improving your relationship when you’re already trapped in a negative cycle. An easy place to start is by setting up a daily routine of “special time”: a specified, uninterrupted period of time in which you join your child one-on-one in play, while allowing them to fully take the lead. Even a daily 5 minutes of special time can not only promote a secure, warm relationship between you and your child, but also help improve your child’s self-esteem, social skills, and even language skills. It’s derived from Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based treatment that includes two phases: a “child-directed” phase that focuses on positive behaviors, followed by a “parent-directed” phase that focuses on limit setting. Limit setting is more effective when it takes place in the context of a positive parent-child relationship.

How to Practice “Special Time”

It is important to set yourself up for success by using toys that encourage creative and safe play, while also letting you follow your child’s lead (blocks, toy cars, food and kitchen toys, crayons and paper). Avoid toys that are conducive to rough play (balls, action figures), messy play (slime, paint), games with rules, or games with little interaction (books, video games). Once you have an activity in mind, it’s time to play! To make sure your special time is truly child-led, you can follow these dos and don’ts.

You can remember the dos with the acronym PRIDE:

  • PRAISE: Praise appropriate behavior – and be specific! (e.g., “Great job building such a tall tower”)
  • REFLECT: Reflect appropriate talk (e.g., Child: “I drew a cat.” Parent: “Yes, you drew a cat!”)
  • IMITATE: Imitate appropriate play (e.g., Child: Drawing a flower. Parent: “I’m going to draw flowers just like you.”)
  • DESCRIBE: Describe appropriate behavior – act as a “sportscaster” for your child’s play (e.g., Child: Making a tower. Parent: “You’re making a tower!”)
  • Be ENTHUSIASTIC!

These allow your child to lead the play while showing that you approve of the activity and are interested in what they are doing.  As for the don’ts, the goal is to avoid using any commands (“Hand me that block”), questions (“What are you drawing?”), and critical statements (“That’s not what a cow says”) during the designated special time, as these can interfere in your child’s ability to lead play. Try your best to ignore any attention-seeking negative behaviors. However, if your child becomes aggressive or destructive, then it is time to stop special time.

Special Time with Teens

Special time is most used with younger children; however, you can still do a variant of special time with your teenager–it will just have to look a bit different. While spending one-on-one time with your teen (preferably an activity of their choice), make no corrections or criticisms and give no directions. Or, take a moment to observe your teen doing something they enjoy (e.g., working on an art project, watching a basketball game on TV) and casually provide some positive attention. Show genuine interest in what your teen is doing and ask to join.

It helps to take a more subtle approach that makes less of a “to-do” out of special time. For example, PRIDE skills can be implemented in more age-appropriate ways by using validation (communicating to another person that their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are understandable to you in a particular situation) more than straightforward praise. Additionally, the activity may be less restricted by the above recommendations; for example, games with rules may be more feasible with a teen.

Don’t worry if your teen rejects your initial attempts–this response may shift over time as they realize your motives are genuine. Taking a more passive approach with your teen may also help, by initiating time together without drawing too much attention to it. Founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, Patty Wipfler, has come up with some creative ideas for this, such as: take a book to read in the same room in which your teen is doing their homework; join your teen in their room to really listen to their favorite music; or sit with your teen while they eat their after-school snack. The goal is to pay attention to your teen in a “low-key” way and to look for ways to offer your approval, no questions asked.

The more consistently and predictably you practice special time with your child, the more likely you are to see improvements in your child’s behavior over time. If at any point your child’s behaviors become overly interfering with day-to-day functioning, it may be time to check in with your pediatrician.


Dr. Lindsay Myerberg is an RAB Research Fellow and licensed clinical psychologist at Alvord, Baker and Associates, LLC, in Rockville, MD. Dr. Myerberg earned her PhD from Temple University and completed her clinical internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center Child & Adolescent Inpatient Unit. Dr. Myerberg has provided evidence-based treatments for children, adolescents, and adults in a variety of settings and is actively involved in research evaluating cognitive-behavioral interventions for youth.

Resilience Across Borders Earns a Three-Star Rating From Charity Navigator

Press Release

Silver Spring, MD, November 17, 2022 – Resilience Across Borders is proud to announce that its strong financial health and ongoing accountability and transparency has earned a Three-Star Rating from Charity Navigator. This rating designates Resilience Across Borders as an official “Give with Confidence” charity, indicating that our organization is using its donations effectively based on Charity Navigator’s criteria. Charity Navigator is America’s largest and most-utilized independent charity evaluator. Since 2001, the organization has been an unbiased and trusted source of information for more than 11 million donors annually.

Charity Navigator analyzes nonprofit performance based on four key indicators, referred to as beacons. Currently, nonprofits can earn scores for the Impact & Results, Accountability & Finance, Culture & Community, and Leadership & Adaptability beacons.

“We are delighted to provide Resilience Across Borders with third-party accreditation that validates their operational excellence,” said Michael Thatcher, President and CEO of Charity Navigator. “We are eager to see the good work that Resilience Across Borders is able to accomplish in the years ahead.”

 “Our Three-Star Charity Navigator rating is further validation that our supporters can trust our commitment to good governance and financial health,” said Ariana Lobasso, Executive Director of Resilience Across Borders. “We hope that it will introduce our work to new supporters who can help us advance our mission to increase access to mental health interventions for all children and adolescents.”

Currently, Resilience Across Borders has partnered with three elementary schools serving economically marginalized communities to bring our program to their 5th grade students. Educators trained in our Resilience Builder Program-Universal™ teach children skills that research shows increase both resilience (the ability to adapt to life’s challenges) and academic engagement. Resilience Across Borders looks forward to expanding our impact to more schools each year.

Resilience Across Borders’ rating and other information about charitable giving are available free of charge on charitynavigator.org.


About Resilience Across Borders

Resilience Across Borders is dedicated to increasing access to mental health interventions for all children and adolescents. Our research-based method helps youth build resilience so they can adapt to life’s challenges now and throughout their lives. Connect with us on resilienceacrossborders.org, Facebook, or Twitter.

Talking to Kids about Illness and Death

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Illness and death are a natural part of life, and we’ve all–kids included–been surrounded by far too much of both during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parents struggle with how to broach these difficult subjects, especially when it comes to speaking with younger children.

Although every story is different, the questions parents ask me tend to have a whole lot in common. Below is a sample of those I hear most frequently–followed by my best advice after 30 years of practicing pediatrics and being a mom.

Should I tell my children that Grandma is sick? They’ve always been very close, and I don’t want them to be scared.

We love our children so much; we wish we could protect them from the painful things in life. But honesty and openness are always the best route with children. Kids are very good at intuiting when there is sadness or stress in a family. Hearing whispers behind closed doors causes way more anxiety for them than facing sad or even scary truths—especially if you answer any questions they raise in a frank and calm way, using age-appropriate language.

Even with very young children, the explanation should be direct and clear. It’s good to start with something to prepare them such as: “I want to talk with you about something that is sad.” That prepares them for hearing something hard. For example: “Grandma is very sick and her heart isn’t working anymore. The doctors feel she will die very soon.” Then you wait, allowing time for the information to sink in and to assess your child’s response. You can be there to hold them, love them, answer any questions, and accept any response they may have. You can let them know you are sad and that it is ok to cry or not to cry.

For some children, the information will sink in slowly, and you will need to keep coming back to explore how they feel. Sometimes with younger children, tackling these topics is more accessible through play, perhaps using dolls or toys to act out different emotions and responses. Sometimes children, even older children, may not want or be able to talk right away. Let them know this is ok. Keep going back to ask how they are feeling and if they want to talk or just spend time together. Sometimes just having a parent there and feeling a non-verbal loving connection is what your child needs if they are not ready or able to talk.

How do I tell my child that someone has died?

Once again, I think it’s important to use clear and honest language. Euphemisms can sometimes be scarier for children because they are harder to understand than clear language. And it’s important to remember that when there is a death, children’s worries are going to focus on the living people they love the most. They may ask questions that suggest that they are worried about you–it is ok to reassure them that you are very healthy and so are they.

Sometimes it is appropriate to let kids know that what happened is no one’s fault; kids will sometimes feel guilt or engage in magical thinking (i.e., unrealistic reasoning to make sense of difficult experiences) around a death. Because of their vivid imaginations and because they often feel they have enormous power to make both good and bad things happen in the world, children’s magical thinking is very common and can be quite intense. They may, for example, worry that something they or someone else said or did (or didn’t do) was the cause of the death. It is very important to talk about these thoughts so they do not lead to excessive worry and shame.

As painful as it is to see your child suffer, it is important to be there with their pain and not rush to try to make them feel better. Pain and sadness are a part of life; we want to open the door for our children to tolerate and be with all of their difficult emotions.

Is it okay for my child to see me grieving?

Yes! It is okay for a child to see a parent cry. It is okay for a parent to say, “I am feeling sad.” At the same time, it’s important to try to keep your child’s life as consistent as possible, even when you are deeply grieving. They will be fearful if they feel a parent is so distraught that they are unable to take care of them in their usual way. Reassure your child that although there is sadness and grief in your life right now, you have each other and will get through this together. Keeping routines as close to normal as possible in terms of bedtime, meals, and family rituals is important to give them a feeling of safety and a sense that life will go on. You can read more about understanding and honoring your own grief here.

Should I bring my child to a funeral?

I think this depends on the child’s maturity level. Sometimes images from a funeral can be very scary to young children (i.e. seeing the body, dirt getting shoveled on a coffin) and you may decide that it is better not to have a smaller child attend. Older children may want to participate in the family ritual, and it can be very connecting and healing for them. If you decide that it’s better for your young child not to attend, you may want to have your own separate family ritual, so that your child has the chance to process the death and feel connected in a warm and comforting way.

What if my child won’t talk about the death of a loved one–even someone really close?

Sometimes parents worry that their child is not even reacting to the news of a death and is continuing to live their life as though it never happened. It is important to realize that children may need time to process the event. Continue to try to connect with your child to find out whether there are any big feelings that they are hiding or burying, but don’t push. Accept all responses and do not have expectations that your child should react in any particular way. As difficult and painful as it is to talk about death with a child, it is important for our kids to know that we are there for them to talk about anything. (And we’re there for them when they don’t want to talk.) We want them to know that we are not retreating from hard topics. Butsometimes the best way to “be there” is just to be there, without looking for more.

What if my child asks me a question I can’t answer? Or that I don’t want to answer?

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to answer a question your child asks you. It is always okay to say, with any type of question, “I am going to think about how to answer that best and get back to you.” (A great technique for buying yourself some time before answering any question!) This gives you an opportunity to think things through, and if you are still unsure, you can ask a trusted friend or relative, or your pediatrician. Remember: You are not expected to know all the answers, but you do want your children to know that they can ask you anything.


Dr. Dana Kornfeld serves on the board of Resilience Across Borders. Dr. Kornfeld is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at The George Washington School of Medicine. She practices pediatrics, with a specialty in adolescent medicine, at the Pediatric Care Center in Bethesda, Maryland.


Book List for Families Dealing with Loss

  • Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing after Loss by Pat Schweibert & Chuck Deklyen
  • When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny & Mark Brown
  • I Have a Question about Death: A Book for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Other Special Needs by Arlen Grad Gaines & Meredith Englander Polsky
  • Stones For Grandpa by Renee Londner & Martha Aviles
  • Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen
  • Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers: How to Cope with Losing Someone You Love by Earl Grollman
  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia
  • Something Very Sad Happened: A Toddler’s Guide to Understanding Death by Bonnie Zucker & Kim Fleming

Resilience Across Borders’ Latest Research Published in Peer-Reviewed Journal

Press Release

Resilience Builder Program® improved students’ resilience and academic engagement

Silver Spring, MD, March 21, 2022 – Resilience Across Borders, in collaboration with Catholic University’s Psychology Department and Alvord, Baker, & Associates, administered the Resilience Builder Program® (RBP) in five schools in the Washington, DC region serving students from economically marginalized communities. RBP is designed to teach children how to cope with disappointments and setbacks, from everyday frustrations to larger obstacles. Clinicians and graduate students delivered the intervention in 12 weekly small group lessons. To assess the effectiveness of the program in schools, 169 students were randomly assigned to receive the intervention immediately or following a one-semester delay. Students, teachers, and parents completed questionnaires at the beginning of the semester and following the intervention or semester delay.

Students who participated in the RBP reported improved self-efficacy and relations to others, both important domains of resilience. Their parents and teachers reported improved resilience. Students’ resilience was also related to academic functioning. Teachers reported that students who participated in the RBP showed significant improvements in study skills, academic engagement, interpersonal skills, and academic motivation. Students who participated in RBP also reported significant improvements in study skills and academic engagement. These findings are now published in the peer-reviewed journal “Evidence Based Practice in Child & Adolescent Mental Health.”

Based on the evidence that this program is effective in school settings, Resilience Across Borders is adapting the intervention so that teachers can administer the new Resilience Builder Program – Universal™ to their entire class. This new approach will reach many more students—about 300 this year alone.


Rich, B. A., Starin, N. S., Senior, C. J., Zarger, M. M., Cummings, C. M., Collado, A., & Alvord, M. K. (2022). Improved resilience and academics following a school-based resilience intervention: A randomized controlled trial. Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.


About Resilience Across Borders

Resilience Across Borders is dedicated to increasing access to mental health interventions for all children and adolescents. Our research-based method helps youth build resilience so they can adapt to life’s challenges now and throughout their lives. Connect with us on resilienceacrossborders.org, Facebook, or Twitter.

Understanding and Honoring Grief this Holiday Season

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As another year draws to a close, you may find yourself in a reflective mood. This process of looking backward and forward can be particularly painful if you are grieving. These past two years have brought unprecedented loss. Loss of the lives of people we love, loss of income, loss of opportunity, loss of social contact. Grief is the emotional and psychological reaction to loss. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness and a longing to see, talk to or simply be with who we’ve lost once again. While the grief process can seem unbearable, it is possible to lighten the burden.

There is no right way to grieve

The process of grieving is individual—there is no road map showing you the “correct” path. The pain of longing can feel insufferable and the desire to have some relief is overwhelming. However, you can’t hurry the process. There are no shortcuts. Do not critique your process, do not judge your feelings. Whatever you are experiencing during this time is true. Avoid the temptation to compare how you are “doing” with how others seem to be managing. Grant yourself the permission to feel the profound sadness of loss and resist the temptation to restrict it.

Feelings are often irrational

You may notice that you can become overwhelmed with feelings that come out of the blue and make no sense. Emotions are not rational. Guilt and regret are two emotions that can be especially difficult to manage. You may find yourself ruminating about events that you wish you had done differently. Guilt and regret will make you say things like “I should have done more” or “Why did I say (or not say) that?” To extract yourself from this regret loop, change the “I should have” to “I wish.” Statements that include “should have” come with shame whereas wish statements reflect the humble fact that we cannot control the past. Guilt and regret arise when we focus on the things that did not go in the direction that we wanted. It is important to acknowledge these memories, but know that they are a small part of the more complete picture that captures the more loving aspects of your relationship.

Making a new relationship with the one who has died

If what you are grieving is the loss of a loved one, know that even though their body has departed, you can continue the relationship in a new form. Just as there is no right way to grieve, there is no right way for the relationship to continue. Remain open and know that it is possible. In my own life, after my mother died, I continued to be in contact with a dear friend of hers. In our conversations, we shared stories about my mother, revealing attributes about her that were unknown to the other. Knowing my mother more fully has allowed my relationship with her to strengthen in a new and beautiful way.

Offering support

Many people worry about what to say to people who are grieving. Most experts agree that what you say is not as important as simply saying something. Many people who have suffered a loss want to talk about that person endlessly while others are uncomfortable talking. You can start with “Are you OK talking about him/her?” If the answer is yes, you can prompt with questions like: “What were they like?”  “What made you love them so much?” “What about them made you giggle, cry, feel proud?” Grief is a lonely process that can be easier to endure with support from others. Do not be afraid to offer that support.

Additional resources

For Children:

  • Cry, Heart, but Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Mediation on Loss and Life by Glenn Ringtved
  • The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
  • The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia, PhD

For Teens:

  • Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers by Earl Grollman
  • Modern Loss: Candid Conversations about Grief by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner

For Adults

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies by Therese Rando PhD
  • Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore, PhD

Dr. Anne Hayes is a certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in private practice in Bethesda, MD. Dr. Hayes completed medical school, residency, and fellowship training at Georgetown University. She worked in the community mental health setting for many years before transitioning to a full-time private practice.


How can I ease my child’s holiday gathering anxiety? Q&A with Dr. Maria Zimmitti

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It’s been a long time since we’ve had a family get-together. What can I do if my child is feeling anxious or shy about seeing everyone?

Keep in mind that a year and a half in the life of a child feels much longer than it does in the mind of an adult. So, we can expect that they very well may be anxious or shy about seeing people after a long period of time. Having that mindset can help parents understand why this might be challenging for their child from their perspective. First, it’s important to normalize this in a very non-judgmental manner. Then, collaboratively problem solve ways to reduce the anxiety with your child. You may say something along the lines of, “We are getting together with our extended family for the first time in a while, which can feel a bit scary/intimidating/overwhelming. It’s okay to feel nervous. Let’s brainstorm ways of making this feel a bit more comfortable for you. We can review names and ages of family members, look at photos of them so they feel more familiar, video chat with them before the gathering, create a quiet space you can go to if you need a break during the get together, etc. Do you have any other ideas?” Involving the child in this type of conversation will help them to feel more in control and better prepared for an unfamiliar situation.

My child already had social anxiety and the time apart has made it worse. How can I help? 

This is a very common trend that we are seeing a lot of within our practice. The pandemic for kids with social anxiety was a relief in many ways. Quarantine removed the anxiety-provoking stimulus, social interaction, which means they were able to be in their comfort zone for an extended period of time. As holidays, school, and other activities are resuming, kids with pre-existing social anxiety are experiencing an amplification of symptoms, which is exactly what we would expect.

Imagine. You are fearful of public speaking and your job requires it. You don’t enjoy it, but with practice you’ve learned some skills for reducing your anxiety. Then, a career change occurs and you no longer have to give those dreaded presentations anymore. Relief and comfort ensue. But then, there is a change in leadership and your new boss suddenly requires daily presentations. Panic ensues. You feel worried, this feels foreign, you lost your skill, and you forget how to cope.

This is exactly what kids with social anxiety are experiencing right now. Helping to see the struggle from their perspective will give you patience, insight, and compassion when working with them to overcome this hardship. Tell them that social skills are sort of like a muscle. With practice, they strengthen over time. However, during the pandemic, that muscle was not used as much and became pretty weak. The good news is that we can restrengthen muscles! With parent support, they can ease into uncomfortable situations to practice strengthening the muscle. Each time they do this, the muscle grows and they can do more and more each time. This type of treatment is called graduated exposure and we strongly recommend that work with a trained therapist to help facilitate this process.

What if my child is worried about covid? 

As always, let them know that it’s okay to have some concerns and that you are available to discuss them whenever they arise. Setting aside some time to listen to whatever worries are on your child’s mind will let them know that you are available and they are not alone, which can be a huge relief. When discussing their concerns, be mindful of the amount of reassurance that you are providing to your anxious child. You may find that your child becomes dependent on the reassurance and begins seeking it more and more, which can actually worsen their anxiety when they aren’t able to get the reassurance they are looking for. Rather, remind your child of the safety measures that your family and their school have put in place to take care of them in order to model how they might redirect anxious thoughts.

What can I do if I’m also feeling anxious or nervous?

Some of the anxiety that you are experiencing may be inadvertently passed on to your child, so it’s crucial that you take care of yourself so that you can better take care of your child. Do your best to stay present, avoid too much media intake, and notice your thought process. Are you catastrophizing (thinking of worst case scenarios), getting carried away with “what if” statements, filtering all of your thoughts through a negative lens while ignoring positive or neutral aspects (focusing on number of positive cases rather than low % positive rate)? Take some time to become more aware of what thoughts pass through your mind and see if you can create some space between you and the thoughts. I’m not asking you to change your thoughts in any way. That’s actually very difficult to do. Instead, notice them and return to whatever action you are doing in the moment. The key is to engage in this process without passing judgment (“I’m so bad at this.”). This will help you to not get carried away by the anxious thoughts and model a calm, mindful presence for your child.


Maria Zimmitti, Ph.D. is the Founder and Clinical Director of Georgetown Psychology and Co-Founder of Helix Center in McLean, VA. Dr. Zimmitti is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience evaluating and treating children, adolescents, and families. She has been featured in numerous media outlets, including CNN, ABC7, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and Parenting Magazine to provide her expertise on topics related to child and adolescent mental health and parenting.


How to Foster Resilience through Social Connection and Gratitude

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When building resilience in children, we aim to boost confidence in their ability to react to and cope with challenging situations. All children can learn to bounce back from disappointments and strengthen their emotional well-being. This ability is enhanced when they don’t have to face adversity alone. In fact, studies show that social connection—specifically the support we receive from others—has a profound impact on how resilient we are.

Healthy relationships provide us with love, trust, and the sense that we can relate to one another. When we’re going through a hard time, the understanding and advice we receive from others help us cope effectively. After a year and a half of isolation from family and friends, youth are finally reconnecting. Navigating this new landscape of social interaction requires patience and adaptability. Here are three ways you can help your child foster healthy social connections:

Play a supportive role in your child’s friendships. Friendships are critical to developing social skills such as acknowledging the perspective of others, having conversations, and problem-solving. Encourage your child to catch up with old friends and make new ones, perhaps by helping arrange a play date or getting them involved in after school activities. Keep in mind that there will be times when your child gets into a disagreement with a friend. In these situations, you can model respectful behavior and offer suggestions, but ultimately allow them to make decisions about how they will resolve the problem. It is important that children learn from their mistakes so that they can be proactive the next time they encounter conflict.

Schedule quality time to check-in. Pick one day of the week where you ask your child, “What went well this week?” “What were some things you struggled with?” and “What can I do to help?” Checking in with these questions allows you to celebrate what went well and acknowledge their concerns. You can validate your child’s struggles as they arise by saying, “I understand why that was hard” and then coming up with a plan together to overcome difficult situations.  Additionally, use this time to participate in your favorite activities that bring you closer. By holding this space to connect consistently, even during busy times, you cultivate a safe and supportive environment.

Practice gratitude often. Gratitude is all about acknowledging the events, experiences, and people in our lives that we cherish. Feeling appreciated by our loved ones brings us closer together, so tell your children why you’re grateful for them and encourage them to do the same. Try leaving each other little thank you notes or sending texts when you think of one another. Keep in mind that practicing gratitude is not just something we do for others but also for ourselves. It’s not meant to erase our negative experiences but to instead acknowledge the good around us despite them. Gratitude is a way of reframing our perspective and gaining self-control, which are critical components of resilience. One quick practice you can introduce is keeping a journal in which you and your child list the people and moments you appreciate daily, whether they’re big or small.


Three Ways to Help Kids As They Start (Another) Uncertain School Year

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Whether or not they say it out loud, many kids are apprehensive about starting school. On top of the normal anxiety, they’re processing pandemic-related concerns. Whether your child is full of excitement or dread (or both), it’s not hard to relate. As the comedy writer Matt Buechele put it recently, “We are rounding the corner, and what is around the next corner? It is … another corner.” Leaning on humor won’t end COVID, but it could help us summon the reserves for another year of disruption.

Here are three other ways you can help your kids manage uncertainty and engage fully in their lives:

Normalize fears and plan together

In a normal school year, kids may worry that they’ll get on the wrong bus or have no one to sit with at lunch. But now, they also have to worry about following COVID protocols, seeing friends they haven’t seen in 18 months, and sustaining stamina after so much time at home.

Try to get a sense of their concerns, then troubleshoot together. Perhaps it would help to start following a new schedule now or come up with a system for tracking and handing in work. If they’re worried about finding their way around or understanding new rules, take advantage of mock days or other orientation activities. You could even read the school handbook together.

Socially, kids could arrange to meet someone for lunch on the first day, or schedule an after-school playdate with a familiar, trusted friend. Reassure them that you can reassess and tweak the plan with them if it’s not working.

Stay calm and lower the pressure

Acknowledge that we’re living through challenging times and validate their anxieties. Kids know when adults are not at their peak, so be authentic. Tell them when you’re dysregulated and how you plan to manage your feelings. Ideally, kids “catch our calm,” but that’s not always possible. If you lose your cool, circle back to them and apologize.

This is particularly important if you find yourself battling over grades or homework. Many kids have taken a hit to their academic self-concept during the pandemic. And while all kids are still learning to manage school demands, it’s even harder to stay focused and organized when your world has been turned inside out.

In response to that loss of control, some kids have developed a new obsession with grades. Their perfectionism could make it hard for them to get started—or stop—working. Others are overwhelmed and don’t know how to ask for help. Try to get at the root of the problem. Do they need help breaking down an assignment? Do they need a break? Do they need help emailing a teacher or setting realistic expectations?

On the flip side, look for ways to make homework fun. If the stakes feel too high, kids can tense up and fail to produce anything. I recently spoke to Martin Reeves, co-author of The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future, who suggests turning homework into a game whenever possible. He’ll have his kids ask and answer a homework question faster and faster until they break down laughing. Or he’ll have them imagine the worst possible way to complete a project. The point is to make learning playful. As he noted, “You won’t hear anyone say, ‘I just played with my Lego and it was a real grind.’”

Set realistic social expectations

Kids are understandably concerned about their social status after so much time apart. This one is tricky, because their fears are not unfounded. Their friendships are likely to change, even without a pandemic. To help them manage these fears, assure them everyone is feeling the same way and help them think more expansively.

Ask, “What can you do if you need to shift groups or make new friends?” Help them think about social skills, too. You might ask, “How can you join a conversation or find common ground?” Put them back in the driver’s seat by asking, “What are the traits you look for in a friend? How can you recognize when you’ve outgrown one? How can you create distance without burning a bridge?” Help them understand that no one friend could possibly meet all of their needs, and that it’s healthy to broaden their network. Share examples from your own life. Perhaps there’s one friend who you like to go jogging with and another who you count on to make you laugh when you’re feeling down.

Which brings me back to humor. As Buechele also noted: “Look, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Is it oncoming traffic? Maybe.” Whatever we find on the other side of that tunnel, we can ease kids’ journey by lightening the mood and giving them back a sense of agency.

Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.


Support Your Child’s Well-being During the Pandemic and Beyond

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Last updated October 3, 2022.

The same guidelines that were introduced to protect us from COVID-19 have also negatively impacted many children’s emotional wellness. In my work as a child psychologist, I have witnessed a shared experience of grief among children because of their inability to celebrate birthdays with friends, visit their grandparents or other family members, and engage in enjoyable activities in which they once participated routinely. When opportunities are restricted, the feelings of sadness and loss that may ensue are normal, valid, and logical. Although most COVID-19 limits have been lifted, re-establishing your child’s baseline functioning and mood to be the same as prior to the pandemic may require time and effort. Fortunately, there are strategies to prevent sadness’s persistence or a potential downward spiral.

An important first step is to examine the things that mattered most to your child before the pandemic across different life areas, such as relationships (family, friends, classmates, teachers, coaches, etc.), school, hobbies, and daily responsibilities. This will give you clues as to what gives your child’s life meaning, even at this young age, and suggest ways to build in activities within each life area that reflect your child’s values. Living a meaningful life protects us from prolonged periods of sadness and improves our general well-being. It is important to consider as many life areas as possible to encourage balance in your child’s life.

Here are some guiding questions for you and/or your child to reflect on:

  1. Enjoyment: When did you notice that they were happiest? What activities would they most look forward to?
  2. Connection: Who was your child happiest with? Who do they feel like they could be themselves with? Who could they talk or hang out for hours at a time? Who would they most want to invite over?
  3. Mastery: What were some of the activities that made your child feel accomplished or productive? When did your child feel a sense of pride? What were some of the activities that led them to experience higher self-esteem?

After selecting activities that offer enjoyment, connection, and a sense of mastery, begin scheduling them for your child. You may want to start slow, depending on your child’s current level of activity. If you have an older child or adolescent, engage them in this discussion and planning.


Note: In more severe cases, sadness can persist over a prolonged period and be accompanied by symptoms like fatigue, irritability, lack of enjoyment or motivation, and changes in sleep and appetite. If you notice these symptoms in your child, we recommend speaking with their pediatrician or a mental health professional to assess for depression.


Help Your Child Overcome Reentry Anxiety

Blog Post

As vaccinations increase and the prevalence of COVID decreases, restrictions have lessened, and life has been coming back to a new “normal.”  The transition back to life after this difficult year brings with it many different emotions.  While many children are excited to return to in-person school, sports and activities, they often also express worries.  Here are some tips on how to help your child with the transition.

Validate
Let your child know that it makes sense to find transitions both exciting and scary, and that you understand it. Even our pets are reacting to the shift back toward no longer having us home as much! Many kids have recently expressed fears about COVID, making friends, or starting new activities. Often in our attempts to soothe our kids we say, “don’t worry” or “that won’t happen.”  Instead, let them know that you get it: “It makes sense to feel worried about being inside with unmasked adults after being told to avoid that for over a year. I get why that is confusing for you!” or “I understand that it’s hard starting a camp when you don’t know anyone yet.”

Act confident
Often, we share our children’s fears, or are worried about how they will feel, which makes coping even harder.  Work together with your child to check the facts and develop a plan to cope.  For example, if your daughter is worried about COVID, you can help her look at the data on decreasing rates, read new studies together about the risk in children and outdoors, and learn about the safety procedures of the places she is going.  If children are worried about making new friends or being away from a parent after a year stuck together all the time, plan with them about how they can engage with peers and what to do when missing home.  Most importantly, act as though you know they can handle the situation and any uncomfortable feelings that may pop up.

Go slow
Transitions do not need to be all or nothing. Practice reentering life in a gradual manner: If a child is nervous about going to crowded places again, start with a small playdate or medium-size birthday party, or a hike on a trail that may be more crowded.  If your child is clinging to Purell when out and about, rather than removing it altogether, discuss when it is and is not necessary and practice using it slightly less.  Practice small adjustments outside of your child’s comfort zone until they feel ready for the next step.

Reward
After children practice facing new or uncomfortable situations, it is helpful to reward them. Let them know you are proud of them and allow them a special treat or activity to reinforce their success.

Consider what parts of this year you want to include in your “new normal”
While this past year involved many losses, both of loved ones and of missed milestones and activities, there have been some aspects that many have enjoyed. Some parents have enjoyed not commuting and spending more time with their kids. Some kids have preferred more unstructured time to play and less pressure. Discuss with your child what you each hope your new normal may look like as COVID wanes and what new limits may need to be reinstated, such as reduced screen time, as we can safely reenter society.