“Wait, what should I wear?” I frantically asked my husband last weekend while digging through a mountain of laundry. Before he even had the chance to respond, I quickly followed up with, “And should we serve food?” He shrugged and replied with another question, “How long do these things usually last, anyway?”
You’d think that we were organizing a formal soiree or some sort of work event, when in fact all we were really doing was hosting our first ever playdate. You see, our son was eight months old when the pandemic started and due to various, well, variants and other pandemic-related circumstances, we had never invited a single one of his friends from school over to our house before. I texted my mom group for advice—yes to food, cap the playdate at two hours and nobody cares what you wear. Fortunately, our anxiety didn’t rub off on our 3-year-old who navigated that first social hang wonderfully. (And by wonderfully, I mean the two kids decided to use their banana snack to “paint” the table.)
But this got me thinking—the youngest members of society seem to have gotten through the pandemic basically…fine? Of course, it wasn’t always easy getting them to wear their masks or explaining why they couldn’t see grandma, but now that we’re (kinda, sorta) out the other side, it’s becoming increasingly clear just how resilient kids are. (And by kids, I’m referring to those ages 5 and below—I recognize that the pandemic had a very different effect on older kids and teenagers, both academically and emotionally.)
“Children are considered the most resilient population due to their stage of development and the heightened malleability of their growing brains,” psychotherapist Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick tells us. “They are also a resilient population due to generally, though not always, having adults to assist them in navigating through stressful events.”
Indeed, experts agree that the biggest factor for building resilience in kids comes down to one thing—a strong relationship with a supportive adult. “Children can be very resilient, as long as their caregivers create a sense of emotional safety,” trauma and resiliency expert Leo F. Flanagan, Jr., PhD, confirms.
And throughout the pandemic, despite our own concerns and fears, didn’t us parents do what we always do? We put on a brave face and prioritized keeping our kids as calm and safe as we possibly could. While this was inevitably easier for some parents than others, these efforts have seemingly paid off—young children have resumed friendships, run back into the classroom and continued the important business of growing up.
My own kid was so little when the pandemic started that he simply doesn’t know anything different, something that rings true for a lot of children. “My 5-year-old son is virtually unscathed,” Michelle, a mom-of-two living in Maryland, admits (although she notes that her 8-year-old is another story). “My daughter was obviously sad when her daycare closed back in March 2020, but now she’s a happy, funny and (I think) well-adjusted 4-year-old,” another mother from New Jersey shares. And OK, there’s not a lot of data on this yet and we may well see effects of the pandemic on this population later on (particularly for those in low-income households, where both financial and mental health hardships were greater), but at least anecdotally, it seems like young kids are for the most part dusting themselves off and moving on.
Parents, on the other hand? Not so much. “Now that I’m back to work and people are expecting playdates and get-togethers all the time, I’m so out of practice and so overwhelmed,” California mom-of-three, Lauren, told us. “Playdates at my house especially stress me out—even if it’s just a kid coming over with their parent, I always feel like ‘is this over yet?’” As a person who sent my mom group multiple outfit selections before that inaugural playdate, I can definitely relate.
But it’s not just that our social skills are rusty—something that, arguably, a lot of adults (parents or not) are dealing with after years of lockdown. We’re also emotionally drained.
“Parents were faced with taking on new and unexpected roles, job losses, caring for sick family members, fear for their children’s well-being, and much more,” Dr. Fedrick says. Oh, and let’s not forget the confusing guidelines, vaccine delays and never-ending school closures. “Many adults did not have the support or resources needed to effectively navigate through this time,” she adds. So is it any wonder that we still feel shell-shocked?
Indeed, Dr. Fedrick explains that adults are generally less resilient than children, even outside of pandemic times. This is partly because they’re stuck in their ways and partly because they have more responsibilities, which means more pressure and stress when something goes wrong.
So, if the kids are alright but parents are not, where do we go from here?
“I’d like to be seen by people who don’t have kids,” Michelle says. “I know that sounds selfish because I know that a lot of people went through hardships and there were people who were alone and didn’t have any family, but I would argue that all they had to do was take care of themselves and we couldn’t even do that!” she adds.
Indeed, more than one parent we spoke with felt bitter about how the last two years played out and wanted an apology—although who should do the apologizing isn’t exactly clear.
Fortunately, Dr. Flanagan has some concrete ideas to help parents develop resilience and help deal with whatever comes our way this fall (please, please, please, not another variant!).
Some of these resilience-building strategies you may already be familiar with (meditation, breathing, jotting down what you’re grateful for at the end of every day), but here’s a cool tip for what to do in the moment when faced with yet another challenge—say a positive test that keeps your kid home from school for the next week. When you feel your blood pressure start to rise, ask yourself these three questions, says Dr. Flanagan: Is this going to last forever? Does this affect everything? What can I do to make things just a little bit better?
For example: Is this surge going to last forever? No, numbers will go down eventually. Does this new variant affect everything? No, I can still do my job and send my kids to school. What can I do to make things just a little bit better? I can go on a nature hike with my family.
One more thing—for parents who are still feeling overwhelmed, sad and generally pissed off, know that your feelings are valid. “It does not seem fair nor logical to expect a parent to ‘get over’ what has happened in the last two-plus years,” says Dr. Fedrick. “Rather, it is crucial for [them] to experience a sense of empathy, compassion and understanding for their experiences.”
As for me and my own social anxiety, well, we have another playdate scheduled for this weekend. I’m still a little unclear on all the rules (can I offer the parent a glass of wine? If one kid hits the other, what’s the etiquette there?), but I’m actually excited to chat with another mom about snack ideas, swimming lessons, travel plans…and how the hell we survived the last couple of years.