Miles’ tantrum had built up from the moment he got out of the car. He hugged his mother, Kyle, and asked to go home.
Moments later, Kyle, who didn’t want his last name used to protect his privacy, watched his 3-year-old stubbornly collapse on the floor of the indoor pool deck. He finally started to cry and scream.
It was one of their first big releases after more than a year of living in relative isolation.
As Miles’ eyes wandered, his mother noticed that her friend’s toddler was also collapsing.
Going to the swimming pool was previously a routine activity for the family, and Miles, who is generally sociable, had told him he was delighted to be going for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
“Talk about something that hits you in the butt,” her mother said. “I hadn’t realized how scared he would be.”
There are many toddlers like Miles who may have been comfortable socializing before the pandemic, but who are too young, clearly remember those days. As many people have emerged from pandemic isolation, their children may find it difficult to transition to a new way of life that now includes places they previously couldn’t go.
CNN spoke with two professionals in pediatric medicine to help parents help their little ones navigate these new experiences. Here is what they had to say.
Do not “come back” to a pre-pandemic standard
Memories begin to form around age 2.5, said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a behavioral development pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine. This means that a child who is currently around 3 or 4 years old does not have many strong memories of life before the pandemic.
Radesky encourages parents to allow children to develop their social skills, but at an appropriate pace.
“This idea of getting back to normal is really overwhelming for a lot of people, so I want parents to feel that you don’t have to get your kids back into everything ‘normal’ now either,” he said. she declared.
Dr Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, also encourages families to focus on relationships and social relationships, saying it is important for mental and physical well-being. general children – and parents too.
But she noted that after more than a year of socializing not being the norm, the transition could be difficult for some toddlers, especially if they are just a little more rigid by nature.
“I would encourage parents not to go back to dealing with things as usual… because for the kids it won’t be business as usual,” Chaudhary said. “Even though it’s positive, it’s still a change.”
Kyle said it has been difficult to balance the physical and social health of his children.
“The mere idea that people were the danger was just a very difficult concept to convey in a way that wasn’t going to scare them into not wanting to be with people later,” she said.
Prepare your child
When making plans for your child, whether it’s a play date, school, or camp, there are ways to mentally prepare your child to help them feel more comfortable.
Chaudhary emphasizes that it is “perfectly normal” for a toddler to express nervousness, fear or worry about a new social situation.
“The more information parents can provide to children, the more empowered they will feel to go through this transition,” Chaudhary said.
Radesky suggests talking about social activity ahead of time. If it’s something your toddler has done before, help them remember what it is. If they haven’t, Chaudhary says taking them there first can help them orient themselves to a new environment.
But when last minute plans do arise, parents don’t have the luxury of getting their child ready. If that happens, Radesky said parents should focus on the positive aspects of what they’re doing and provide information on what to expect.
If separation from family members is an issue, Chaudhary said arranging for the child to spend time away from parents or siblings for small increments, increasing as time goes on. the child becomes more comfortable. For example, a short walk with a trusted adult might be a good place to start.
Since the lockdown, Kyle has said she has watched Miles become “intensely codependent” with his 5-year-old brother. During an outdoor school activity, she noticed that the brothers never left each other to interact with their classmates.
“The point was to allow them some sort of socialization, but it’s also the way all other families behave,” she said. “The siblings stayed together, only the children played alone.”
Radesky said that another way to help prepare your little one for social situations is to introduce them to what they can do if they start to feel overwhelmed, such as finding the teacher and holding their hand. hand.
Talk to your kids
Chaudhary suggests that parents open up to their child about how they cope when they are feeling overwhelmed.
“Being proactive in asking kids how they feel and creating these safe spaces to have those conversations – it’s a really healthy foundation, even for small children, as they get a little older and start going through more difficult transitions. “Chaudhary said. .
Chloe Massey, a mom from Falls Church, Va., Said she has talked a lot with her 3-year-old son, Keenan, about what it means to be nervous over the past year.
When a delivery boy or provider showed up at the door during the pandemic, Keenan would become shy and scared, Massey said. With trembling lips, he would say to his mother “Kee Kee’s OK” at such times.
Now, as the family became more social after Massey and her husband were vaccinated, Keenan’s nerves around people are gone, she said.
“Funny how staying aloof was really part of our vocabulary for over a year – and part of his vocabulary – and I haven’t heard him say it for two months, not a word,” he said. Massey said.
Stay calm in the moment
No matter how well you prepare your child for new situations, they can fall apart.
Radesky noted that young toddlers tend to communicate their emotions through their behavior, such as temper tantrums that help them put an end to the situation in the moment. If this happens, Radesky encourages parents not to overreact.
“If you show that you are afraid of your child’s feelings, they will find their feelings even scarier and even more overwhelming,” she said.
Instead, parents can help their child calm down by playing a game with them to focus on the senses, Radesky said. Take turns describing the things you can smell, smell, hear, and touch.
Get help if the problem persists
Chaudhary said there should be a low threshold to getting good control with your little one’s pediatrician or seeing a therapist if you’re concerned about unusual behavior. If your toddler continues to struggle to adjust for more than a few weeks, or if their emotions get worse, like stopping or not engaging, seeking professional help can be of great benefit to them.
Children are resilient
Thinking back to how the pandemic affected her family, Kyle said she worried about the future, noting that it had been difficult to instill her values of inclusion and helping others as she ‘she had to demonstrate that she kept the space between people and her children.
“I’m really worried that this will permanently change the way we as a family interact socially with others,” she said.
She said she often didn’t realize how much of Miles’ struggles came from living in the midst of the pandemic or just being 3 years old.
But over the months since Miles collapsed at the pool, she said she saw her personality start to blossom around the adults.
“Whenever there is more than one adult around him it’s a little new to him, he just goes into these long, long epic stories full of all this creativity that we hadn’t seen before. because apparently he needs a group, an audience, ”Kyle says.
It’s the resilience of young minds, Radesky said, that will ultimately help those struggling to adjust overcome their fears.
“I have no reason to feel negative or nihilistic about the prognosis for children in general right now,” Radesky said.
Massey, an early childhood educator, said she also believes children are resilient.
Still, Massey said she was still relieved to see that when she dropped him off for his first day of camp in June, he said “Goodbye, Mom”, put on his backpack, walked away. moved away and didn’t look back.