How to Help Kids Re-Enter the World After Covid

It can be challenging for kids to adjust back to social gatherings after a year-long break. These tips can help parents with slow-to-warm children re-enter the world. 

By Maureen Fernandez, Content Director | Jun 10, 2021
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My family and I recently attended our first large family gathering since the pre-Covid times. We’ve been slowly re-entering the world – my kids have gone back to school and we’ve started gathering with friends again in small groups. But this was our first time seeing the extended family, and we have quite a large, loud, fun family. Two of my three kids had no problem and jumped right in, playing with cousins and saying hi to aunts and uncles they probably don’t quite remember. (After all, a year away from people when you’re a kid is basically a lifetime!)

But my middle child, a six-year-old, had a little harder time. I had sort of forgotten that she’s slow to warm up to people she doesn’t know, because, well, we haven’t been hanging out with anyone in so long that we haven’t witnessed that behavior. For a kid who was slow to warm up to people prior to Covid, re-entering the world after a year-long absence might be pretty challenging. I wish I had thought about this before the party, but we managed to support her through it in the moment. Nonetheless, here are a few tips that can help kids who may have a little harder time going back to social settings – a few things you can do beforehand, and a few you can do in the moment.

Prepare.

The best thing you can do for a kid who you think may be anxious to go back into the world is to prepare. I’m a big fan of over-preparing and am comfortable with the fact that my kids will surely roll their eyes at me from time to time. But I think it’s important to give kids context and help them understand what they’re going to experience. We have to remember that kids don’t know what we know. They may not really understand why we didn’t see anyone for so long, and why we’re starting to see people again. They may not remember the houses or the family members or the customs at gatherings that were so normal not too long ago.

We may have to re-introduce even the most basic things again. We may have to name some of the people who will be at the party, or even show them pictures. We may have to remind them of some of the things they can expect. Will there be a barbeque cookout? Live music? Dancing? Think through what the experience might be and then share it all with your kids. Tell them that some people might be loud or that there may be a lot of hugging. Tell them what they can expect at the location of the gathering (if you know), and if there will be anyone there that they know and are comfortable around.

We don’t want to put anxiety into our kids, so we want to avoid over-preparing from an anxiety standpoint. For example, it might be appropriate, depending on your child, to say something like, “If it’s too loud, you can always come sit with me.” But it’s best to avoid spending a lot of time saying things like, “It’s going to be loud and you might get overwhelmed or anxious! I know I might too! Parties can be overwhelming!” Wait until the child shows a sense that they’re overwhelmed or anxious before really spending a lot of time discussing it. Instead, just give them the facts as you know them, and allow the child to mentally prepare.

Monitor.

One way I knew my daughter was having a hard time at the party was simply by observing her behavior. From the moment we walked in and were greeted with a round of loud, excited hugs, she retreated behind me. I noticed at one point that she had covered her ears. Observing her behavior was the first step. Then I also monitored it throughout the party to see when (or if) she started to get a little more comfortable. I noticed that at times, she would open up and say a few words, or if someone talked to her, she might respond. Other times, she would hide again. Just sort of keeping an eye on her throughout the party was helpful – I could tell when she could manage to step out a little, and when she was overwhelmed and needed to retreat.

If your child shows signs that they’re having a hard time, then it’s a good idea to comfort and support them with phrases such as, “I know it is loud. You can sit here next to me.” Or, “There are a lot of people talking to you. It’s okay if you need to take a break and be with me for a little bit.” Then just keep your eye on them. They may sit with you for awhile and then slowly start to get up and do something for a little bit. Let them take the lead and consider yourself a safe landing place when they need a break.

Don’t push them.

The best thing you can do for a child who is slow to warm is to let them be slow to warm. Don’t push them before they’re ready. This can be hard, especially in families and social groups where hugging or other greetings are the norm. It’s a good idea to come up with a game plan in advance about how you might handle certain situations, such as what to do when you arrive and are greeted at the door, or a family custom that everyone has to go hug grandma. You might tell your kid that they don’t have to hug and they can hold on to you, but that they have to say hi. Or they don’t have to hug everyone, but they have to walk over and say hi to their grandma, and then they can come back to you. You can show your kid that you’re supporting them by having their back and saying, “She’s not ready yet, but I’ll give you a hug!”

Give them space and time to warm up.

Interestingly, the thing that really got my daughter to open up was a box of sidewalk chalk. Taking a lesson from her kindergarten classroom, she drew a chart on the concrete and listed various dessert items. Then she asked everyone at the party which was their favorite dessert: donuts, lollipops or ice cream. As people answered, she filled in a square on the chart. (For the record, ice cream won.) This little activity was universally accepted as cute, but also served another important purpose for her. It allowed her to interact with people on her terms. If I had said, “Go around the party and ask everyone what their favorite dessert is”, there’s not a chance in the world it would have happened. But she decided to do the chart, and she decided that asking people their favorite desert was a comfortable and safe way to interact with everyone. It meant she controlled the story, and she got to manage her interactions with others.

I’m not saying every child will do an informal desert poll once they’re ready to warm up. But giving children time and space and allowing them to interact with others on their terms creates the possibility that the child will, in fact, engage when ready.

Be patient.

Lastly, remember that kids have emotional needs just like we do, and re-entering the world after a challenging year may cause some anxiety. For most of us, our biggest emotional need is to feel safe. When kids feel safe, they will eventually be themselves around others and engage in social settings according to their personality. But it may take awhile for kids to feel safe again, and that’s okay. As long as you continue to be a safe place for your child, that sense of safety will expand. Just be patient.