While grief may seem to only impact a handful of returning k-12 students, it’s a misconception that most students are entering this school year without having experienced significant loss. That loss can be seen in the chained up playgrounds, the silent sports fields, and on the half covered faces of children in masks. Kids nationwide are coping with the loss of normalcy and a shaken sense of safety. Nothing about the rapidly approaching school years seems clear, except for the certainty that very little will be the same as it was. Kids will be restricted in terms of who they can interact with, how they can interact, and where they’ll socialize.
If you’ve ever spoken to us at Harbor Lights – or to just about any other mental health professional, for that matter – you’ve likely heard us talk about routine and structure. That’s because routine is central to our mental health, especially when dealing with grief. When we are grieving, structure has a powerful ability to help with the healing process: predictability, social interaction, the prioritizing of self-care, and regulated sleeping/eating are all central to grounding us in our reality and create stability at a time that feels out of control.
For kids who are learning about their surroundings and how ‘to be’ in the world, routine and structure also provide a sense of safety. They’re able to make sense of the world through their beliefs about how it works, which are based on previous experiences. This security comes from a range of expectations: everything from ‘I wake up at 6:15 so that I can brush my teeth, get dressed, and eat breakfast before the bus comes at 7:15’ to ‘If I need help, my mom, my teachers, and my friends will be there for me, because they have been in the past.’
While structure and a sense of safety are crucial aspects of healing, they are often also some of the first things to go after a loss: kids don’t go to school and participate in their usual activities, homework may be optional, and rules at home become more relaxed. We tell parents all the time to fight that feeling that everything is out of control, and instead to prioritize structure. That will help parents and children alike to ‘navigate the storm.’
What does life look like now that normalcy has been lost? Frankly, it looks a lot like grief. Therefore, just as with other losses, routine and structure need to be priorities. Though creating structure is hard to do under normal circumstances, and might seem especially challenging during the pandemic, it’s crucial in helping our kids to heal and thrive.