How to build community in a socially distanced neighborhood

Kids are heading back to school, sort of, but COVID mitigation strategies mean that even schools that are offering in-person classes might not continue for long. Mask mandates are back, and social distancing is recommended. As quarantines continue and the delta variant sends hospitalizations rising among kids as well as adults, it’s clear that the pandemic is far from over. 

COVID-19 won’t last forever. But with no end currently in sight, it’s time to rethink how we approach social capital and neighborhood relationships. Is it possible to build community in a world where social distancing isn’t a short-term solution, but a long-haul necessity?

Familiar neighborhood connections like carpools, sleepovers, and after-school parties may have to wait, but building relationships is more important than ever. Here are some ideas for how you can continue to strengthen connections with your neighbors, even while we have to stay distanced. 

Hold a neighborhood zoom party  

Neighborhood porch parties may be a thing of the past – for now – but community starts with communication, and the internet makes digital communication easy. At this point, everyone’s an expert at zoom, so why not invite your neighbors for a zoom party? Play games, split into breakout rooms for small group discussions, or hold a contest for the funniest zoom background. 

Start a silly collaborative art project.

Even a simple art project can become a trend that takes off. In one neighborhood, a family started putting googly eyes on random objects throughout the neighborhood and posting pictures on social media, and the trend took off. In another neighborhood, one family posted a mayoral campaign poster for their cat, and other families quickly took up the project, with competing posters urging people to vote for Rover the Dog or Luna the Cat. It’s impossible not to laugh when you see a rock with googly eyes, and silly projects like this make it easy and fun for everyone to participate. 

Plant a community garden.

If you don’t yet have a community garden, there’s never been a better time to start one. If there’s a vacant, unused lot in your neighborhood, reach out to the landowner for permission to start gardening there. Even small plots provide an automatic boundary for social distancing while enabling you and your kids to socialize with neighbors. 

Build a little library. 

A little library is a wooden box in your yard for trading used books. Put books in it that you don’t want, and encourage neighbors to take books they want or bring books they don’t. You can download free plans for building a little library and do a construction project with your kids, or if that sound intimidating, buy a premade kit to put together. 

Make a chalk obstacle course.

Get your kids – and the rest of the neighborhood kids – moving and jumping with a sidewalk chalk obstacle course. Use different colored chalk to design different activities such as a maze to walk through, a dance challenge, or a classic hopscotch path. Have older kids design and draw obstacles for younger ones. To get the whole neighborhood involved, draw your course on a public sidewalk that’s used frequently so everyone can enjoy. 

Organize a car parade. 

Car parades are a great COVID-safe activity, since each family in the parade is essentially inside their own “bubble” while in their car. Although it takes more time to set up than the other activities, the fun is worth the effort! Reach out to neighbors to recruit families who want to participate in the parade, and choose a theme for car decorations. Then spread the word to everyone about the date and time, and encourage families who are watching to gather at the end of their driveways. If someone in your neighborhood has a speaker, you can put it in a truck at the front of the parade to provide music.  

Hold a screen on the green

Although the delta variant is more contagious than earlier versions of COVID-19, most experts agree that outdoor gatherings are still relatively safe when combined with social distancing. All you need for a neighborhood screen on the green is a large grassy field, a spot to hang a sheet, and a projector and speaker. Make sure that everyone sits at least six feet apart from other families, and encourage everyone to bring popcorn. Choose a family-friendly movie so everyone can enjoy, and start the show as soon as it’s dark.

Sharing activities together is one of the biggest ways that people build relationships in a neighborhood. While the pandemic has made that more difficult, it’s not impossible. With a little creativity, you can continue to get to know your neighbors and show your kids what community looks like – even in a pandemic.

Could This One Day Transform Your Relationship with Your Kids?

In 2009, an intriguing children’s book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal introduced a novel idea that many parents decided to try for themselves. 

Recently, Jennifer Garner popularized the idea – one she enjoys annually with her own kids – in a new Netflix movie

The concept is simple: Give your kids a “Yes Day.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: For one day, your answer to your kids’ requests is always yes. 

If you’re picturing your kids running wild for a day, eating candy for breakfast and jumping on the couches, you’re not entirely wrong. For families who’ve tried it, the fun of it lies in saying yes to requests that would normally trigger an automatic “no.” But if you think that sounds impossible, think again. With a few guidelines in place, many parents have found that a Yes Day can be feasible for their family.

Before you start planning your wild day, though, you might wonder why. Why would any parent want to agree to everything their kids ask for a day? It can sound intimidating to follow your kids’ lead, especially if you’ve gotten used to constantly saying no. But you might find that saying “yes” is worth the risk. 

Saying no is often the easy option for us as parents. But the truth is, circumstances will say no to your kid more often than not – and that’s been more true than ever in the past year. For many kids, the pandemic year has brought circumstances that forced many new “no’s”: No, you can’t go to school in person. No, you can’t go to a movie theater. No, you can’t see your friends. No, you can’t go inside the store without a mask. 

Choosing to say yes to our kids when we can – as difficult and scary as it may be – sends a message much bigger than the activity we’re saying yes to. A Yes Day can help you gain a deeper understanding of your kids’ interests and passions. It can grant your kids a new level of autonomy, sending them a message that you trust them and that you’re on their side. Most of all, it helps you reconnect your relationship, because for one day, you’re not fighting with your kids. You’re not trying to convince them to do the things they have to do, and you’re not focused on the tasks you need to accomplish. It’s a day to follow your kids’ lead – no matter where it takes you. 

Ready to give it a try? Here’s how to hold a Yes Day for your family without breaking the bank or losing your mind. 

A happy girl rides in a shopping cart at the grocery store

Start by setting some boundaries. Deciding to say yes doesn’t mean you have to keep every option in the world on the table. Unless you have limitless money to spend, set a budget limit (you don’t want to spend the next three months paying off your Yes Day bills!). You can do this per child or per activity, or you can set a total budget for the day and let your kids decide how to spend it. 

You might also want to set a location limit so you don’t spend the whole day driving. This could mean you tell your kids that all activities have to be within a certain number of miles or a certain driving time from your house, or it could mean you set a total mileage limit for the day – whatever works best for your family and your location. A time limit on each activity is also a good idea so you don’t spend the entire day doing just one thing (unless there’s one all-day activity that the kids really want).

If you only have one child (or if you have two parents and two kids who can split up), then choosing activities will be easy – your only child can get full say and follow any whim that catches their fancy. But if you’ve got several siblings and only one adult for the day, you’ll need to decide how the kids will choose activities if they disagree. You could have them take turns, so each sibling gets to pick an activity (time limits on activities will be essential if you take this route), or you could set a rule that they all have to agree (and you might be surprised how good they can be at compromising when you opt out of your usual veto power). 

And speaking of time limits, many experienced Yes Day parents recommend one final rule: No activities with long-term consequences. That means no signing up for six months of expensive archery lessons (but one trial lesson today is totally ok!), no dropping out of school (but playing hooky for the day might be an option), and absolutely no new puppies. 

Once you’ve agreed on the rules, you’ll have to decide how to plan your Yes Day. Parents are divided on this one: some like it to be a total surprise for kids when it happens, while others prefer to pick a date in advance and let the kids plan what they want to do. Both options can be a lot of fun, and you’ll probably be inclined to decide based on your own personal preference for planning or spontaneity.

But since Yes Day is a day for your kids, not for you, you might be better off letting them choose whether they want to be surprised or not. Keep in mind that this sudden decrease in structure (and increase in power) can be unsettling for kids as well as empowering. Some kids will be overwhelmed by choices if you surprise them with a Yes Day, and they’ll end up feeling stressed and disappointed by all the things they would have wanted to do if they’d had more time to think about it. Other kids will get overwhelmed by trying to plan, and they’ll enjoy the day more if they just go with the flow and choose what they want in the moment. If you’re not sure, consider talking with your kids about the theoretical idea of a Yes Day and how they would want to do it if they could.

Even if you do end up surprising your kids with the date, it’s generally a good idea to spend some time talking about it in advance so your kids aren’t overwhelmed by too many choices on the big day. Some parents like to plant ideas and suggestions ahead of time, while others encourage kids to make a list of 1-3 big things they definitely want to ask for when Yes Day arrives. Other families plan the entire day in advance. You can also write ideas on pieces of paper and put them in a bowl to draw from if your kids get paralyzed by indecision during the day. The key is to prioritize saying yes to what your kids want in the moment – and to remember that your kids’ needs and desires on the big day could be different from what they planned. If your kids plan a packed schedule and get exhausted halfway through, don’t insist on sticking to the plan – be prepared to say “yes” to going home and watching TV the rest of the day if you need to. 

Finally, once Yes Day is over, try to bring some of the spirit of Yes Day into everyday life. For many parents, one day of saying “yes” to their kids can help you recognize how often you say no – and how often it’s not really necessary. As parents, we often say “no” reflexively, feeling that it’s our job to set limits as much as possible. But often, the truth is that 10 more minutes of TV won’t really have much of an impact on bedtime, and two cookies instead of one won’t really give your child a sugar high. Yes Day can help you to reconsider which of your family limits are reasonable and necessary and which could use a little more flexibility. Saying “yes” when you can is a way to increase kids’ autonomy and ultimately to teach them responsibility. Saying yes can be an expression of respect and trust toward your kids. And the more you practice saying “yes” as a parent, the more your kids, in turn, will respect your “no,” because they’ll learn that when you set a limit, you have a good reason. 

How to Help Kids Cope with Trauma

Sometimes, the hardest part about being a parent is the things you can’t do. 

The past year has shown every family how powerless we are as parents to protect our children from trauma and stress. Even if your family was lucky enough to avoid serious illness or loss from the COVID-19 pandemic, your children experienced disruptive routine changes and isolation as they transitioned to online or hybrid school. And now, just as things are starting to get “back to normal,” one of the largest fires in our state’s history is raging just a few counties away. This year is underscoring the reality that we as parents can’t prevent frightening things from happening in our children’s lives.

And even if life does get back to normal over the next few months, that transition can be challenging, too. Going back to in-person school will be stressful for kids who’ve been learning online or hybrid for most of the past year. In addition to the stress of re-learning how to interact socially, kids need to re-learn how to get up and out of the house instead of rolling over and turning on the computer, how to manage a long day of school and after-school activities, and how to keep up with homework and motivate themselves after a long day at school. Plus, they’re doing all this in the middle of a pandemic that still hasn’t ended — most kids still can’t get vaccinated, and the possibility of more lockdowns and more school shutdowns still hangs over their heads. 

But even though we can’t prevent stressful situations in our kids’ lives, we can help them cope. 

Here’s how parents can help children manage trauma and stress. 

Keep your routine

Maintain your family routines as much as you can. Routines can give kids a feeling of security and reliability, so they can help kids feel safer in the middle of transition and stress. Even if it’s not possible to keep all your daily routines, aim for weekly routines. Even something as simple as a family board game night every Friday can help your kids feel more secure and give them a routine to look forward to. 

Listen

Now more than ever, it’s obvious to parents – and probably to kids, too – that we can’t always keep our families safe from danger. But as parents, we can create a sense of emotional safety for our kids, even in dangerous situations. Do this by listening and validating their emotions. Give kids a chance to talk about what they’re feeling about scary events in the world, whether it’s the fear of going back to school and not being able to connect with friends or the fear of having to evacuate because of fire. Help your kids find words to express their emotions, and validate that those feelings make sense.

Just listening can be difficult – when your kids talk about stressful feelings, your instinct is to want to fix it. But telling kids that it’s not as bad as it feels, or trying to convince them to feel better, can actually make them feel worse. Instead, try to just validate their feelings by saying something simple like “That sounds really hard” or “It sounds like you feel really scared.” Instead of offering solutions, give your kids space to feel negative emotions – and then give them the time to come up with their own solutions to the problem. 

Cry together

Grieving is an important piece of processing stress and trauma, but it’s one that we often try to gloss over. There are few things more painful than seeing your child cry, but grieving – and sometimes crying – is an essential step in accepting when bad or scary things have happened. Kids can process emotions in lots of different ways, so encourage them to express their feelings in whatever way feels best for them. That might mean crying and cuddling together, or it might mean drawing pictures or reliving scary experiences with toys. Even though it can be scary to let your kids revisit frightening or upsetting experiences, the truth is that feeling those negative feelings is essential to processing them. 

Encourage good boundaries 

For kids, traumatic experiences often involve having their boundaries violated. Feeling scared can also cause kids to struggle with defining good boundaries; they might want lots of space and independence one minute, and want to be coddled the next. You can help your kids process by modeling and teaching good boundaries. Teach them to recognize when they’re feeling stressed or angry, and tell them that anger is often a sign their emotional boundary is being crossed. Encourage them to tell you (with words!) what they’re feeling and to ask for what they need. 

Teaching kids to enforce their own boundaries is difficult, because most of the time, they’ll practice this skill first on you. But as a parent, it’s your job to be a safe space to practice these kinds of interpersonal skills – even if it’s uncomfortable for you. So when your kids ask you for space, model respect for their boundaries. It might feel like you’re giving up on connecting with them, but in the long run, your relationship will be stronger for it. 

Empower them to find solutions 

Instead of offering solutions, ask your kids questions that will help them create their own solutions. If they’re worried about seeing their friends in person again, help them role play what might happen and what they want to say on the first day of school. Encourage them to think through the “worst case scenario” and how they would handle it. Even though the worst case probably won’t happen, it can help kids feel better to make a plan for it.  

Tell the truth

When your child is struggling, it’s a natural instinct to reassure them that “everything is going to be okay.” But the truth is, you can never be certain about the future. You don’t know for sure if the pandemic is going to go away, or if the fire isn’t going to spread. Instead, tell your kids the truth: that their feelings are valid and allowed, that you’ll always support them no matter what, and that you love them. 

There are many things you can’t do as a parent. You can’t prevent bad things from happening, and you can’t control the future. But you can love and support your children unconditionally – and ultimately, that’s enough.

How Do Children Show Stress?

The past year and a half has created a new paradigm of stress for many families. A couple of years ago, a stressful day meant losing a baseball game or getting a bad grade on a test. But since 2020, stress means spending months or more indoors separated from friends, struggles with virtual school, and tragic family losses.

As an adult, you’re probably familiar with how you tend to react when stress gets to be too much. You might get snappy or irritable; you might have trouble sleeping; you might struggle to concentrate at work. But for your kids, stress can be expressed in a variety of ways. As a parent, it can help you to know how stress can look in kids of different ages, so you can help your kids recognize and manage it. 

Infants 

You might think that young children are less susceptible to the stressors we’ve experienced in the past year – after all, they don’t understand what COVID means, and their entire lives have been in quarantine. But the truth is that babies and toddlers are highly sensitive to family stress, and even if the pandemic didn’t have a significant impact on their usual routine, the stress you’ve felt has affected them. 

For young babies born just before or during the lockdown, life in a global pandemic is the only life they’ve known. For them, the return to normal schedules might be a bigger stress than anything they’ve experienced yet. If you’ve been home 24/7 for most of your baby’s life, then a new daily routine involving driving, work, and daycare could be a big and stressful change. Babies who are stressed tend to cry more and sleep less, which isn’t likely to improve your stress level (or your ability to get out of the house on time). But any significant change in your baby’s normal behavior could be an indication of stress, from dietary and bowel changes to sleep and activity levels. 

On the bright side, helping your infant better manage stress is relatively easy: nurturing touch and quiet routines can go a long way toward calming them down. Young babies don’t need a lot of entertainment or stimulation, and they usually get enough educational stimulation from daily life, so reducing stress for infants usually means reducing stimulation with calm, quiet time together. Just holding and rocking your baby can cause her cortisol levels to drop. And the bonus? Snuggling with your baby can reduce your stress levels, too. 

Toddlers 

Toddlers who have been growing up in Covid probably appreciate the fact that their parents have been present a lot during quarantine. Just like with babies born in the past year, for young toddlers it’s probably the “new normal” of businesses opening back up and parents going back to work that’s causing the most stress in today’s changing world. 

Just like young babies, toddlers aren’t verbal enough to talk clearly about their feelings, so they mostly express stress through behavioral changes. Bedtime resistance and nighttime wakings are a common sign, as are bowel changes, dietary changes, and activity changes. Stressed-out toddlers might become more clingy and unwilling to go to daycare or play with friends, and they might have nightmares or bedtime fears. They might also say they feel sick and complain of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical pain. Finally, of course, toddlers will show stress with their favorite way to express emotions – tantrums. 

One of the biggest ways to help toddlers manage stress is with familiar routines. So while it’s helpful to acknowledge what your child is feeling, and to name the emotion they’re expressing, it’s usually not helpful to change your usual plans in response to your child’s tantrums. Giving your toddler choices can help them feel empowered, but too many choices or too much change will make them feel out of control. Rather than saying “ok, you don’t have to go to daycare today,” try offering a choice like “do you want to put on your shoes first or your pants first?” Keeping a (somewhat flexible) routine and structure helps toddlers feel more secure, which reduces stress in the long run – even if it means you have to push through some protests.

It’s also common for stressed-out toddlers to invent routines out of random things you happen to do once. For example, if one morning you give your child orange juice and then a plate of scrambled egg, they might decide that this routine is essential and get angry if the next morning you give them eggs first and then orange juice. As your routines are changing in the transition out of quarantine, it can help toddlers to maintain as many daily routines as you can — even if they seem minor or silly. 

School Aged Children 

For school-aged kids, school and friends are a key source of both social learning and emotional support. Kids who’ve been separated from friends for much of the past year might have been really stressed by the isolation – and even more stressed about the return to school. If they haven’t seen their friends in a long time, they might worry that their friends don’t like them anymore. They might feel that they’ve lost the knowledge of how to make friends or how to play with other people. All of this might mean they have very mixed feelings about the coming school year – a perfect recipe for stress and worry. 

These emotions can show up in a variety of ways. Just like with younger children, your first clue will probably be behavioral shifts such as changes in sleeping, eating, or activity levels. School-aged kids who are stressed might withdraw from family and friends, or they might lash out and get in fights with friends or siblings. They might also have problems with grades due to difficulty concentrating or a loss of interest in schoolwork. 

Vague physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches, are another common symptom of stress in school-age children. Younger school-aged kids may also regress with behaviors like bedwetting, thumb sucking, or even tantrums. 

Even though these kids’ language skills are developed enough to talk about complex emotions, they probably don’t have the emotional awareness to understand or put into words what they’re feeling. If your school-aged child is lashing out or overreacting to seemingly small problems, it’s probably a sign that their level of stress is at the tipping point. 

While talking about their emotions can help, talking about anything can actually help kids at this age process stress as long as they feel like you’re listening and you care. Schedule time every day to just listen to your child talk about whatever’s on their mind, even it’s only 15 or 20 minutes. This might feel like a waste of time when all they ever want to talk about is their favorite video game or the latest video they watched on YouTube. But if you provide that space every day to listen, then eventually they’ll surprise you by sharing the emotions and fears that are worrying most. Playing with you is also a powerful way for school-aged kids to connect and express themselves, so make time to play what they enjoy – even if that means playing that video game you hate. 

Teenagers 

Teens are almost adults, and they’re likely to express stress in many of the same ways you do: getting snappy and irritable, having trouble concentrating, and having outbursts of frustration or anger. But because they’re teens and have a harder time regulating their emotions than you do, these outbursts are likely to be more extreme than an adult’s. 

Peer relationships are incredibly important to teens, but they’re also a big source of stress – and never more than now that they’ve been strained by separation and quarantine in unprecedented ways. Stressed teens might withdraw from friends and from social activities, and they might express worries that no one likes them or they have no friends. 

Teens can also react to stress with the same types of behavior changes as younger kids, such as trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and difficulty concentrating. 

However, all of these behaviors can be hard to distinguish from normal teenage moodiness, so how do you know if your child is stressed-out or just hormonal?

The truth is this: It doesn’t matter. No matter whether your child is dealing with the normal stress of teen hormones or the massive stress of transitioning out of a global pandemic, the emotions they’re feeling are real to them. It’s normal for teenagers to feel that problems that seem small to you are devastating and life-changing, and as their parent, it’s your job to accept those emotions and support them through them. Even if you think the source of their stress seems unimportant, treat it like it’s as big a deal as your child feels it is.

Just like with younger kids, scheduling time every day to talk with your teen about whatever’s on their mind can help them manage stress in their lives. Even if they don’t talk with you about what’s really bothering them, making yourself available is a statement to them that you care about their emotions. And just like younger kids, teens will eventually tell you what they’re feeling if you give them enough space and time and listen without any judgement. 

Stress is normal, and major transitions are always going to be stressful. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, it’s impossible to prevent your children from experiencing stress. However, the first step to helping them manage it is for you to recognize it for what it is. Once you understand that your child is dealing with big emotions, you are better equipped to help them manage and process stress. In our next blog post, we will talk about ways to help kids process stress and trauma.