After more than a year of isolation and schooling from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students heading back to class this spring — plus preparing for summer camps and activities this summer — might struggle more than usual.

Brandon Duft, MD, a child psychiatrist and head of Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, explains what parents should be aware of and shares steps they can take to help smooth the transition.

What trends have you seen in kids during this time?

A lot of people who had a preexisting mental health condition have noticed an increase in their symptoms. Some people who didn’t have mental health concerns before are now reporting them. At the same time, we’re all going through this together. Most people are having similar experiences, and talking about those things together can be helpful.

What developmental concerns are involved with kids not getting social time during the pandemic?

Social connection is an important factor in building resilience, which is how people feel happy and get through stressful experiences. People need that at every stage of life. Young kids are beginning to learn basic social skills. For teenagers, social dynamics are their whole world, as they shift from learning how to be a member of their family to learning how other families and people behave and interact. This is when they’re developing their own unique personality and independence. Not being around other kids can make that more challenging.

Are there social concerns about kids transitioning back to their schools and friend groups?

You have to be patient and brave to re-enter school and social circles. Social skills are skills; they’re things people need to practice and can get rusty at. There are also academic concerns. Some kids have flourished learning online, and others haven’t and might have missed huge chunks of the academic year, particularly kids who have ADHD or a learning disability or who have unreliable access to the internet. There's going to be a big difference between kids who come in ready to go and others who have fallen behind.

What can parents do to help their children re-enter a more social world?

Get your kids back to a structured daily routine that includes exercise, socialization, and a healthy amount of sleep. If you have an academic concern about your child, talk with the school in advance to see what resources are available to help.

More broadly, parents should help their child build resilience by focusing on four factors.

  • Provide opportunities to build social connections with family, friends, and groups, such as sports teams, clubs, or church groups.
  • Encourage them to maintain physical and mental wellness with mindfulness and exercise.
  • Teach them to remain positive by not fixating on negative things and by learning from the past to make positive change in the future.
  • Help them develop a sense of purpose by setting goals and taking time to help others and themselves.

What about kids who have thrived at home?

For some people, there have been obvious upsides to doing school from home, such as having more free time, more time with parents and siblings, and more time to do homework. But children who are doing well now because they struggle socially still have to practice their social skills and learn to problem-solve in those situations. If you have a kid who’s been really successful at home, ask what’s going well and see if there are things you can carry over into the transition.

A reminder: Kids age 12 and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. For more information or to schedule an appointment, visit Kaiser Permanente’s COVID-19 Vaccine Guide.

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