Many Canadian children are beginning to re-enter the world after 10 weeks closer to home than ever before, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they’re returning to school and the playground or reuniting with extended family and friends, the transition can bring up a lot of emotions. We reached out to three experts to find out how parents can ease this transition.
Big change brings big emotions
“Anytime a child is anxious, you’re going to start seeing a change from their baseline behaviour and that can be different in different kids,” says parenting author Alyson Schafer. “Some kids will want to stay clingy and be with their security person. Other kids kind of just internalize things and then they can just actually get so flooded with their anxiety that that freeze, flee, flight part of the brain goes off. Some kids get incredibly angry and aggressive and sometimes it’s hard to connect the dots because it can be brewing for a while until finally it’s too much.”
Schafer advises parents to check in with their children if they notice changes in sleep or more pronounced self-soothing behaviour, such as thumb sucking or twirling hair.
Child psychologist Vanessa Lapointe says parents with more spirited children will likely need more time and grace with new routines.
“If you happen to have what I call an orchid child – a really sensitive, intense child – hold on to your horses a bit because I think you are going to need to transition them in with a lot more planning, a lot more softness, and a lot more making room for some fallout along the way.”
Whether a child will be heading back to school or simply seeing new faces at a store, both Schafer and Lapointe agree rehearsing or mapping can help alleviate anxiety.
“When children have some kind of a lay of the land they can take comfort in that,” Lapointe says. “So planning for what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like, what might be the same, what might be different and also as a parent if you can take baby steps.”
“Going back to school as your first outing after 10 weeks of nothing might be a lot for your child to manage especially since you won’t be by their side to help them through it. So might you venture out and try on smaller changes first in preparation for the big change of heading back into the classroom. “
Schafer says rehearsing increases a child’s sense of control and help parents identify their concerns.
“If you can talk to them and just be curious about their thoughts then they might be able to say to you, ‘I’m worried. What if I fall and I trip on the playground and I bump into someone,’ or ‘Who is going to clean the bathroom at the school? I don’t like sharing a bathroom. At home I have my own bathroom.'”
Starting the conversation allows parents to answer those concerns while the child does the psychological rehearsal for their new routine. She says some children may also feel better if they can go over what to do if someone gets too close to them.
“It might be just putting up a hand and saying, ‘Close enough! Excuse me !’ as if that person doesn’t see you. Most people will be socially aware enough to see if they’re making someone uncomfortable because of their proximity. Or you might say nothing but step back and move yourself.”
Canadian certified counsellor Lindsay Ashmore recommends parents connect their child with their teacher or caregiver to help answer questions as well.
“We, as parents, might not have all the answers to those worries that children might have,” Ashmore says. “We can divert that expertise to the teachers or administration staff who have those answers about what they’re doing, what cautions they are putting in place in schools and in the classrooms and involving our children in those conversations in developmentally-appropriate ways that’s not overwhelming so they feel like their voice is heard.”
Ashmore says this also builds a sense of trust for children in larger social circles.
Lead with “swagger”
Lapointe the most valuable thing a parent can contribute to their child is how they approach change. She says children are master energy readers so if a parent is anxious about reentering social settings their kids will pick up on that.
“The key thing, as with all big things in life as a parent, take it on with swagger. You know how to be your kids answer. You got this. You know what you’re doing. Go into it like it’s Tuesday.”