What is scaffold parenting? It could be the key to help kids adjust to post-pandemic life

Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, USA Today contributor
Kids who've been cooped up and isolated will need to spread their wings and take chances.

Parents who are struggling with burnout, anxiety and isolation have to now adjust to the next “new normal” for their children: letting them go.

The coronavirus vaccine hopes to “normalize” life for young people and bring them back to school, activities and friends. But we can’t underestimate how destabilizing reentry will be. Parents who are struggling with burnout, anxiety and isolation have to now adjust to the next “new normal” for their children: letting them go.

Kids who've been cooped up and isolated will need to spread their wings and take chances. This highlights a peculiar power of the pandemic and the resilience of children. The reality that we all struggled (and still struggle) to accommodate to has become normal for our children. To readjust to “in-real-life” interactions with peers, they may have to go through some trial and error. Some will make mistakes and get hurt. Some anxious children who flourished at home during lockdown will struggle reengaging.

For parents, backing off and letting kids struggle is sometimes the hardest thing to do. We’re socialized for the fixer/protector role, to step in and take care of the problem. If your kid falls and scrapes his knee, your instinct is to put a Band-Aid on it, and say, “I’ll make it better.” They go back to playing and you feel good about having done your job as a fixer well.

However, you can’t put a Band-Aid on a social rejection. Particularly now, there is no instant fix for kids who are navigating social, academic and emotional challenges that we have no experience with. You can’t protect a child from the trials of life. But you can give kids armor by creating a loving scaffold to help them grow.

To raise resilient, independent, confident kids — especially in this extraordinary crisis — we teach moms and dads a strategy called “scaffold parenting.” The metaphor is that the child is the “building,” and the parents are the scaffold around it, the framework that guides and protects as the child rises and grows. 

The three pillars of scaffolding are support, structure and encouragement. At every stage, parents can model and teach positive, prosocial behaviors, give corrective feedback and boost self-esteem. By doing so, they allow the child to develop the strength and agency they need to become happy, successful adults. 

To scaffold an anxious child -- or any child -- for social reentry in the coming months:

Support them with empathy, validation and intervention. Assure them that you understand their fears and concerns. If a child needs a tutor or a therapist, don’t wait for his or her symptoms to become severe to find help.

Structure routines and schedules to give a child a sense of security. Many of our structural norms — like getting on the school bus and going to work — have been upended by the pandemic. A lot of house rules have fallen by the wayside (like TV and gaming restrictions). Ease a child’s anxiety by reestablishing household routines and rules as much as possible.

Most importantly, encourage kids to get back into the social fray via exposure to human interaction. Gently urge them to set up daily FaceTime dates with friends. Take them on walks and encourage them to talk to the people you meet. Practice socializing with them. Ask their teachers to start calling on them once or twice per Zoom class.

We’ve asked a lot of parents over the past year, but there is one more action they can take to help their children come out of the bedroom and readjust to society. If enough parents and teachers start scaffolding our kids now, we ease them back into the social world. If we don’t, our children will lose even more of their childhoods to this virus.

Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, is the president of the nonprofit Child Mind Institute and the author of “The Scaffold Effect: Raising Resilient, Self-Reliant, and Secure Kids in an Age of Anxiety.”