“I do not want to go!” he moaned.
It was just over a week after the daycare left, and the excitement for new people and new spaces had waned. A disorienting world of unrecognizable masks and faces was sinking.
Now we were there and, despite feverish research and psychological support, I was in a daycare parking lot, clutching straws.
There were surely other families now trying to help their children adjust to the transition to reopening as vaccines became more widely available in the United States. Here’s what health and education experts have said about managing your children’s mental health while expanding their once-limited circles.
Can our children return to in-person learning?
Next, identify your limits. Be honest about what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not ready for. Write it down, come back to it, and make changes when you need to. Keeping a journal will provide a clear reference and help build confidence in what you decide, said Fener-Sitkoff.
Talk to your kids
Whether you have toddlers, tweens, or teens, have age-appropriate conversations about the changes coming and how you can face them together.
Start by recognizing how you have supported each other despite the deep losses. Talk about the limits you previously set to keep the family safe, how they are changing and why. For example, discuss the shift from not interacting with someone outside of the household to going to a camp with Covid safety protocols.
Explain that more changes will occur as we learn more about the virus or as more people get vaccinated – or not – and you will continue to talk about these changes as a family. And be sure to communicate what you can still do to stay safe, Fener-Sitkoff said.
Answering your children’s questions transparently and checking back on their experiences often during the transition is key to helping them feel more secure in the decisions you make, even if the families of peers do things differently.
Come up with potential scenarios they may face, such as being surrounded by other unmasked people indoors if the family rule is to wear masks, and how your children might react, Fener-Sitkoff noted.
Also encourage children to talk to other people they feel safe with, whether that is a friend, extended family, or support staff at school or camp. .
Lower expectations for older children
All children need time to adjust to a new routine, said Maia Smith, a longtime social worker in Fulton County, Ga., But parents of teenagers need to be extra careful to address their struggles with empathy rather than punishment or restrictions.
This is because parents tend to have higher expectations of older children. Hit pause on it. Now is the time to pardon and keep the lines of communication open, even if your teenager is resisting, said Fener-Sitkoff.
It might be like walking your teenager out of their bedroom to talk about friendships, feelings, and school activities over a meal, Smith said.
Start with small group activities
Encourage kids to participate in one-on-one social gatherings with a good friend or a small group of friends, said Cindy Simpson, COO of CHRIS 180.
In my house, we went to the playground and saw a few friends of immunized families outside. A week before my toddler returned to daycare, he met his new classmates and teachers during outdoor games at school, so he wasn’t completely unknown on day one.
Beware of sensory processing issues. Children who have had limited contact with others may be overstimulated in large groups or noisy spaces. Keep a pair of headphones handy, Walters said.
Children who have spent most of their time at home may have difficulty adjusting to environmental temperature changes, such as feeling uncomfortably cold in air-conditioned classrooms.
“Could it also be nerves? Maybe,” Walters said. But it doesn’t take much to prepare with a pair of mittens inside, even in summer.
Create a routine and rituals
Many young children – like my 3-year-old – suffer from separation anxiety during any transition, Fener-Sitkoff noted.
You can develop a new routine to reset their sense of stability, security, and confidence in their new surroundings. The more predictable the routine, the more in control they feel.
Develop dating and welcome home rituals, easy ways to say goodbye and celebrate coming home together at the end of the day. A kiss on the forehead. A high five. And try to log in without a screen every day for at least 30 minutes.
When one of the parents picks up our little one from daycare, we grab a little treat and chat about his day while he nibbles, reveling in the solo attention.
Right before I drop my 8 year old to hang out with his grandparents, I’m going to kiss his palm, wrap his fingers around, put him on his heart, and promise I’ll be there if he misses us. We also found a safe word that she could use with me if she wasn’t feeling well and didn’t know how to express it. It has become a catch-all word to describe how we feel at the moment.
“Children remember the little things,” said Fener-Sitkoff. “They don’t cost anything, but they are sincere.”
Leverage your child’s school community
With more and more school districts implementing mental health supports, teachers, principals or school counselors are good entry points to accessible help.
“It’s important to voice your concerns about your child’s return,” said Smith, the school social worker. “The teachers want to help and they recognize that it is a difficult time.”
Encourage your school staff to research and tell you about any social and emotional gaps they might see in your child, and ask how teachers are supported to recognize signs of trauma and how children will be managed.
The pandemic is far from over, and while we cannot fully predict its impact on the mental health of our children, we can support them and hope that our best efforts will be sufficient.
Kari cobham is a writer in Atlanta and co-founder of Media Moms for Mothers in Journalism. She is originally from Trinidad and Tobago and directs the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship at The Carter Center for Mental Health Journalism.
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