How to Help Kids Process the Trauma of Covid

Credit: Matija Medved

By Tish Harrison Warren, Reprinted from The New York Times

Last year, my sister was asked to write an article on how to make holidays fun for children in the middle of the pandemic. On a walk, we brainstormed about ways to celebrate without group gatherings. We wanted a respite for kids after a dark, hard year.

My children had been home-schooled for months because of Covid precautions. They were lonely. My oldest daughter’s birthday party was over Zoom. There were no field trips or school Christmas concerts. No indoor playdates and (for reasons I still don’t totally understand) the city closed outdoor playscapes. I felt for my kids and wanted to offer them some levity.

But as we talked, something else became clear.

Certainly, we wanted our kids to have beautiful moments of joy. But the world was facing mass death and disease. So maybe their holidays wouldn’t be as good.

Maybe they will have to feel some sorrow, and maybe that is OK. In fact, maybe, that’s part of their learning to be citizens in a world that is broken and bleeding. We want to teach our kids to look for light in the darkness, and to do so, we have to let them admit that things are dark. As a former mentor of mine once told me, good parenting requires us to allow our children to be exposed slowly to the pain of the world, to prepare them for the suffering that is inevitably part of every life.

My kids have had it easier than many. This fall, NPR reported that “more than a million and a half children around the world have lost at least one parent, grandparent or another caregiver to COVID-19.” We know families who’ve struggled with job loss and food insecurity during the pandemic. Young people with intellectual or physical disabilities have had unique struggles during the Covid years. Clearly, kids — like adults — have not had to bear the burdens of Covid equally.

But nonetheless, during the past two years, all children have had to face disappointment, isolation, educational challenges, frustration, and enormous disruption of nearly every routine. As most young people settle back into school and a little more normalcy this year, it’s important that parents, teachers, and other adults help them process their experiences of the pandemic. It’s also crucial that we notice — and help kids notice — not just that there are good things that happened in spite of the pandemic, but that this generation of children has beneficial wisdom to gain from their unique experience of living through it.

In his book “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb lends us the metaphor of “anti-fragility.” The idea is that there are things that are fragile, like glass, and things that are not, like steel. But there are other materials that become stronger when exposed to stress and weaker when they aren’t. The best example is bones and muscles. Taleb makes the point that, just as spending a full month in bed reading books or watching TV leads to muscle atrophy and weakening of our bones, a life without stressors — without disorder, challenges, and even suffering — makes us weaker and more brittle as human beings. He says that “neurotically overprotective parents” try to help their kids but end up hurting them.

Children — like all human beings — need to truthfully face difficulty and heartache to grow stronger. Not too much of course. When exposed to too much trauma, bones shatter and people can too. But we weaken our kids by trying to guard them from all pain.

The hard realities exposed by Covid — our lack of control over the world, the specter of mass death, the frailty of all of our human systems and institutions — are ones kids need to know about. The world is an unpredictable and often a sad place. This is the truth, and it is truth, not bliss, that sets us free.

My extroverted eight-year-old who loves school, people, and laughter more than anyone I know began to wither under the isolation of Covid. She started voicing fear and anxiety in ways she never had before. This was heartbreaking to me as a mom, but the impulse to rescue her from the real trials the pandemic presented was one I had to resist. To help her, we planned outside play dates when we could. But I also had to talk regularly to her about how she could honor and cope with the grief of not seeing friends as often as she once did.

What’s more, these Covid years can teach kids that they not only share in the pain and brokenness of the world but that they also have a responsibility to do what they can to alleviate it. In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida bemoaned the affect of Covid precautions in schools, saying of students, “We need to be able to let them be kids and let them act normally.”

I have heard this idea often. I understand this impulse, but it implies that to “let kids be kids” we must ignore the realities of the world, instead of teaching them to live responsibly and resiliently amid them. The failure to learn empathy and civic duty is a worse fate than having to forgo birthday parties, graduations, or play dates. The problem with parents focusing on how to “get out” of Covid precautions — or the societal commitment in the part of the South where I live to alter essentially nothing about our lives during this pandemic — is that it teaches privileged kids that the problems of the world aren’t their responsibility.

Way back in March 2020, when we first had to begin wearing masks and to practice social distancing, our kids were understandably annoyed and complained about these new precautions. But the conversations these frustrations allowed us to have as family were a gift. We reminded them why we take up inconveniences and burdens for the sake of others. For a year and a half now, these practices have slowly taught our kids — through their very bodies — to love their most vulnerable neighbors.

The pandemic gave kids a chance to respond actively to the pain and suffering of the world and to work for the common good. We need to let children know that the ways they sacrificed for others is not only right but part of what it means to live well and beautifully in a hurting world.

My kids will look back on these years and remember some good times we had, some happy memories, some special rhythms and practices we picked up as a family. But they will also remember a lot of chaos, change, difficulty, frustration, loneliness, and disappointment. And that’s not all bad to recall. Because, then, they may recall that the pain of the world must affect how we live our lives. They may recall that they can go through hard things and not be undone by them.

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