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Keep Showing Up: Child Life Specialist (and Mom) Shares Advice for Helping Kids Through Pandemic Challenges

By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS

A little over 18 months ago, I wrote the article “Everyone is Grieving Something.” So much has happened since that time – so much that none of us could have anticipated. That was only a month into the pandemic, and I had high hopes for the future and the future for my kids. We did our fair share of grieving, and continue to even now; however, I was confident when I told my kids that things would get back to normal for the coming school year. Instead, they started school (2020 – 2021 school year) a month later than expected, and we started online only. As we all signed onto Zoom yet again and took back-to-school pics sitting in front of computers, my mom heart sunk. All I could think was this was not the way it was supposed to be. We all watched as the world divided over a multitude of issues and opinions. We found ourselves making decisions completely different from that of our neighbors and closest friends. Then, trying to explain the differences and decisions to our kids was a whole other mountain to climb. It felt like every day was a new day of making a decision that could possibly become the next subject of a social media debate. As parents and health care professionals, every single day was weighty.

My kids ended up returning to in-person learning when they were invited to, but things were far from normal. We made choices at the time to support the mental health of our particular kids (I recognize this was not the best choice for other families). Yet, our family still found ourselves in counseling this past spring and summer as we trudged through parenting breakdowns and the difficulties that one of our kids in particular experienced during her school year. Some of her challenges were related to the pandemic, but much of it was related to emotional fatigue, unexpected changes (unrelated to the pandemic), and what professionals call adjustment disorder. Basically, the amount of changes was just too much – for all of us. I found that I was barely surviving, emotionally fatigued, and probably have adjustment disorder myself. I was shutting down, pulling away and sitting in the midst of anger for what we had all been experiencing. I kind of looked like a toddler in the corner screaming and throwing a tantrum over the last year.

I’ve realized as I return to work every shift to meet the families in the emergency room, I’m not alone. In fact, while our family has been through a tumultuous time, it is incomparable to the families that has received a new diagnosis, experienced a trauma, or lost a precious loved one on top of enduring a pandemic. Everyone is barely surviving. Everyone has reached the end of themselves at some point. Everyone is needing to recalibrate and reconnect.

We spent most of the summer and the beginning of this school year recalibrating our lives and hearts. We have spent time enduring the yo-yo changes that have come with the pandemic, accepting things we don’t like at all, and truly learning to take each day as it comes as it is. As I have reflected on our lack of coping this past year, I have found myself looking to the future yet again. I am asking questions that I asked at the beginning of the pandemic – questions like: How do I want my kids to remember me and this time? What do I want their overarching takeaway to be from this pandemic experience?

At the end of every day, I want my kids to know that they are loved, valued, and known. I find myself needing to reconnect with my kids in very specific ways so that they can know these things. It takes time and intentionality to communicate this to them. (Trust me, there are many days I feel like I’ve failed at this.) As I have stepped back from my own family and watched the many families I encounter at the hospital, I have been reminded that how we show up matters. These are a few ways that we can show up for our kids and reconnect with them in the midst of constant changes and ongoing challenges:

  1. Consistency. Our kids need consistency. Even if just one part of your schedule can be consistent, it will be helpful to your kids. What is one thing that you can do each day or even once a week that your kids can count on? We have the same routine in the car on the way to school that my kids can trust will happen every morning. We have Wednesday ice cream dates after school that they can look forward to each week. They know that we have a movie and pizza night at least once a month. It may be that you do the same bedtime routine each night. Whatever you choose, this will life-giving to your children and create connection with them. When they can count on something in this ever-changing world, it is grounding.
  2. Empathy. Author Brene Brown says that empathy is “holding space” with someone. We want to hold space with our kids. We are often tempted to move on to the next thing, distract them from their current emotion or try to exchange their emotion for a new, less sad or intense emotion. But our kids need us to hold the space they find themselves in – to validate and acknowledge the emotion. This doesn’t mean on the back end that we don’t encourage or correct them. It just means that we take time to be in the emotion with them and allow them to feel it. It is truly amazing to me when I take time to connect with my kids’ emotions how quickly they are able to regain composure. It usually looks like me saying something like, “Yes. I can totally understand that feeling. I have felt the same way…” Often times I will try to connect to a time that I have felt that way and share my own story of that emotion.
  3. One-on-one time. I have always known how important this time is, but I was challenged once again this summer during counseling to make space for this time with each of my kids. It does not have to be a long time. Even just 10 minutes a day of sitting with your child – just you and them – listening to them and engaging them can have profound impact on your relationship with them. I have taken time to prioritize this over the last month, and I see the impact. I scoop up my kindergartner and put her in my lap and snuggle her and ask her about her day. I often cup their faces in my hands and look them in the eyes and tell them how much I love them. I sit next to my 10 year old and ask her to tell me about her day. This time matters so much to my kids.

I will never again tell my kids that there is an end to the hard and challenging times. What I tell them now is that we will take every day as it comes, you can trust that I’m here with you for the hard moments and great moments, and I’m super proud of you for continuing to show up each day for whatever life brings. We have all endured so much, and one thing is still true that was true at the beginning of the pandemic – we are stronger together. So, scoop up your kiddos and gaze into their faces and tell them that they are loved, valued and known!!!

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf

Ashley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.