Guiding Children Towards Resiliency & Kindness
Social distancing, masks, quarantine, zoom, lockdown – unprecedented times. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, most of us never imagined a world in which these words would become a part of our everyday existence. Now they are common, bordering on cliché and meme-worthy. I often think about a conversation I had with my sister when schools first shutdown in March 2020, who told me some parents feared schools would be closed for rest of the year. I remember laughing, thinking such doomsday thinking was absurd. Now, nearly 18 months later, as schools finally return to full-time in-person learning, my optimism seems naïve and foolish, and I am sometimes overwhelmed by the experience of it all.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is far from over, but many of us have made significant progress toward adapting to our new normal. We have learned to “silver-line” our new reality as a way to cope with the loss of freedom, control, and safety we once knew. One “silver-lining” is the much-needed spotlight that Covid-19 has put on mental health awareness. This prompted a generous grant from the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago that allowed JCC Chicago to expand our Social Services team, creating my position and allowing for additional on-site social worker support in our teen programs and at five of our Apachi Day Camps.
Now that schools have returned to in-person learning, many parents have the same questions we did in preparation for camp. How do we best support children who have missed out on critical social experiences? Will my child be included? Will their differences and unique qualities be celebrated or leave them feeling like an outsider? Before we can answer these questions, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the last 18 months and recognize the need to grieve. Yes, grieve. Typically, we grieve when we lose a loved one, but grief is really just a response to significant loss; and that’s exactly what we experienced over these past 18 months. “Silver-lining” our reality is an important step, but so is facing the facts and acknowledging the abnormal experiences we’ve encountered. By setting an example for our children and reminding them that “it’s okay to not be okay,” we are teaching them not to deny uncomfortable feelings but accept them and move forward.
The Kubler-Ross Model for grief describes 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I have no doubt that most of us – myself included – have gone through each of these stages during the pandemic (perhaps repeating a few…I’m looking at you denial!) I say this, not to be pessimistic or negative, but to simply acknowledge our collective experience and recognize the enormity of its impact on our lives. It’s important to recognize and appreciate the things you may have gained, but also allow yourself to grieve the things you’ve lost – and allow your children to do the same. It’s okay to talk openly with them about the loss of birthday parties, graduations, and canceled team sports.
So, as schools return to in-person learning and we can revisit these lost experiences, how do we best support children and teens who have missed out on critical social experiences? Will they be included? And will their uniqueness be celebrated? At Apachi Day Camp, our social/emotional initiatives focused on allowing space for campers to express themselves in a safe, positive, and inclusive environment. Some of our sites had a Peace Tent for campers to take a break, de-escalate, and share their feelings. Other sites focused on group mindfulness activities and awareness. My experience at Apachi Day Camp, along with hundreds of others, was truly transformative and profound. The resiliency and strength of children should not be underestimated. I witnessed campers advocate for themselves, support each other, and at times struggle to adjust to the stimulus overload that was camp. The skill of resiliency is innate in some but can also be fostered and grown in everyone. So how do we help foster that resiliency?
As adults we tend to forget one very simple tool available to us when supporting our children: listening. Kids might have mixed emotions about returning to school that might not mirror your own feelings. Listen to them and validate their feelings, even if you don’t agree. Oftentimes, parents’ interactions with their children can act as an obstacle to understanding their child’s true concerns. Instinctively, parents might shut them down and say, “you should be happy to go back to school and see your friends, you’ll be fine when you get there.” But this doesn’t allow them the opportunity to express and process their feelings. Denying their feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just tells them those feelings aren’t valid and wastes a great opportunity to connect with your child. Allow them to ask questions, help them explore the answers, and be honest if you don’t know. It’s okay to say, “great question, I don’t know why it’s safe to not wear masks outside, let’s look it up together.” Including them in the research process helps empower them to feel a sense of control in a situation that is otherwise completely out of their control.
As you’re having these intentional conversations with your child, I encourage you to take it a step further and begin (if you haven’t already) discussing the concept of kindness and inclusion. These two concepts are central to our social emotional philosophy at JCC Chicago, and it is critical to discuss them with your child right now. Although they have missed out on social opportunities, let’s prepare them with the appropriate tools to be kind and inclusive to all. If they see someone struggling to make friends, sitting alone at lunch, being bullied, or simply adjusting to a new school, remind them to be a leader! Say “hi,” smile, and ask if they want to sit together. Remind them, as we have all learned during these unprecedented times, kindness can truly make a difference.
Sam Savin is a Licensed Clinical Social worker for JCC Chicago. She holds a Master’s degree in Social Work from Loyola University Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from DePaul University. Sam has worked in pediatric and educational settings for many years addressing behavioral and emotional challenges in youth. She recently joined the JCC Chicago social services team to help support Early Childhood, Teen Programming, and Day Camping.