This year has been a tough one for everyone, and now there’s a new roadblock in our path toward “normal” – the fear and anxiety of being around other people.
For parents and caregivers, the past year and a half have been strange. But for children, returning to crowds and in-person learning can be extremely disruptive.
Chicago-area counselor Kimber Lubert, a child and family therapist who practices play-based therapy through a neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology lens, says the pandemic has taxed everyone’s nervous system and the recent push to return to crowds and meet strangers is stressing some people out even more.
“There are four threats that are going to deregulate anyone’s nervous system: safety, incongruousness, the unknown and the fourth is the ‘shoulds’ we place upon ourselves. The pandemic is hitting all four of those — so children’s baseline for regulation is off because those threats are being hit,” Lubert explains. “For children, they’re walking into places thinking ‘Am I safe? Am I going to be okay?’ and that either activates a fight or flight response or they collapse, and that’s where you see the isolation and withdrawal,”
Lubert says this has been a common concern among her clients, and some families are seeking out help specifically for anxiety related to being around people again.
“Especially as things started opening up, I’ve worked with kids on reintegrating — things like being in a store, being face-to-face — and managing some of the anxiety that comes with that and for a handful of clients that’s been the specific treatment goal.”
In sessions, Lubert works to model healthy regulation for children through play and “naming” different emotions.
“If a child is walking into my room and dealing with a fear of meeting new people, I would name that for myself: I would say ‘I’m nervous to walk into the store’ or ‘I’m nervous to touch these things,’ ‘I wonder if they have germs on them?’ ‘I’m going to take some deep breaths,’” she says. “I name that I am taking breaths and maybe I would say that I’m going to use some hand sanitizer.”
Those naming techniques and regulatory exercises can also be used by caregivers at home, though Lubert says parents should keep in mind that preventative measures are much better than trying to ground a child mid-meltdown.
“Everyone could benefit by providing some regulatory things as you approach the transition,” she says. “If I know we are going to the store this afternoon, they could get some movement before they go to the store. I would say to the child, ‘Alright, we’re putting on shoes – let’s do 10 jumps!’
“Movement is very regulating and so is touch, so putting their shoe on for them and giving their foot a little massage helps,” she adds. “Those activities put a nervous system at a baseline so that their system isn’t flooded.”
Stephanie Bischoff, mom of 5-year-old Josephine, says her daughter hasn’t expressed too much anxiety about being around others in her first year of kindergarten in Michigan’s Utica Community Schools.
“I know that if I was a child during this pandemic, and I had to go to school, I would feel nervous,” Bishoff says. “I would be thinking, ‘When do I have to wear my mask?’ but Josephine thinks it’s normal.”
“She even told me, ‘Mom, I need to get some hand sanitizer for school,’ and she always keeps a mask in the car and packs one herself in her bag for grandma’s.”
But for those kids who remember learning in-person before the pandemic and are expressing feelings of anxiety or having more frequent meltdowns, Lubert says parents should increase the conversation around them being safe.
“I usually exaggerate it a little bit, like let’s say they’re going to the ice cream shop,” she says. “Parents can say “Look, we all went and got ice cream and it was so delicious and we’re safe and not sick!”
If parents are constantly having reassuring conversations and modeling regulatory behaviors and the child is still feeling overwhelmed, it might be time to find a child and family counselor or therapist.
“Have a little grace — they’re humans with systems, but if they feel like they need additional support or if it feels really unmanageable, seek out therapeutic help,” she says.
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