Talk about an anticlimactic moment for your 5th grader. Standing on the precipice of adolescence, they were just about to make the dramatic leap from elementary school kid to middle school tween. Now they are missing out on their elementary school graduation, one of the biggest rites of passage in their lives to date.

What’s more, parents can’t reassure them that even though 5th grade fell apart, things will be back to “normal” in the fall. And even in ordinary times, the prospect of middle school can be as terrifying as it is exciting. Small wonder if your child is feeling on shaky ground these days.

What will next year look like?

Most questions about next year remain unanswered. Will your child even get to go to brick-and-mortar middle school in the fall, or will there be more, ugh, remote learning? Beyond whether class will be conducted online or on-site, your child is probably wondering whether they will get to meet their new classmates or, still stuck at home all day for months to come, will they be friendless in the fall? Will they be able to try out for a sports team or the school play? Will they be able to lay claim to that most important of 6th grade real estate — their locker?

Will they be on lockdown forever?

How to help your 5th grader cope

At least that’s one question you can answer with a reassuring and definitive “No”. Even if it seems obvious, this is what your child needs to hear, calmly and clearly, since at this age what’s going on right now feels like it will last forever. As for the questions you can’t answer, psychologist John Duffy says that instead of reassuring them it’s not so bad or that they shouldn’t complain or worry, “the most important thing you can do is to talk with them honestly about any pain or loss they are going through.”

You’ve got to have friends

Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety says that the lack of daily socialization right now is especially difficult for kids this age, because they are in the process of developing an identity that is separate from their parents. Emotional connection with their peers is essential. “They are missing out on a lot. They have a need to be with their friends,” he says.

Add a sense of closure to your 5th grader’s losses. Your child won’t be able to say a proper goodbye to kids — some of whom they’ve known since kindergarten — who are going to different middle schools.

How to help your 5th grader cope

Up your empathy game as your child mourns the loss of playdates, final games, sleepovers, birthday parties, and the reliable, day-to-day cadence of life lived with other kids in the classroom and out. “Tell them, ‘I’m here for you,” says Duffy. “If they know you get it when they say, ‘I’m upset about this,’ they will know they can trust you,” he says, with their worries and grief.

And the hours of screen time you were stressing over just a few months ago? “I want to give parents a break here,” says Duffy. “Right now, for many kids, several hours [of screen time] a day is the best bad idea we’ve got. They need some of that time to connect with friends and to disconnect from trauma. It can be regulating and useful.”

A void parents can’t fill

Your 5th grader’s relationships with the other adults in their life are also essential for their emotional well-being. The abrupt absence of mentors and role models — be it their sports coach, favorite teacher, after-school counselor, or relative — is a massive loss, Duffy says. These relationships help kids build self-esteem and a sense of self-worth.

How to help your 5th grader cope

Think about how you can open up your child’s world to include other caring adults. If there is an important adult in your 5th grader’s life who they haven’t been able to see, find out if that person is up for connecting with your child online or over the phone.

Stuck in sadness

Duffy says that during the first days of the pandemic, he observed that kids were almost happy to be missing school, and “feeling like they were getting away with something.” But as summer approaches, missing out on everything has worn thin. You might see your 5th grader becoming increasingly sad, disengaged, or moody.

How to help your 5th grader cope

Try to get them outside, says Duffy. They may resist and roll their eyes, but the best antidote to feeling sad is to make sure that at least once a day your child gets out and gets moving, be it shooting hoops, riding a bike, playing an outdoor game with siblings, or simply taking a family walk. “It’s important for young bodies to move,” he says. “Kids this age tend to catastrophize. If they are always in their rooms, they will never get out of this mindset. When they get outdoors, they gain perspective that this isn’t going to last forever.” Be on the alert for signs that your child’s sadness is more than a case of situational blues, especially if your child has struggled with mental health issues in the past. Let your child’s doctor know if you notice changes in their appetite or sleep, or if they seem despondent or unable to find pleasure in small distractions or reprieves from being stuck at home, for now.

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