Written by Hannah Snyder, Ph.D.
As cities and municipalities transition from stay-at-home orders, parents are having to make the best decision out of less than perfect options. For many parents, finally having an alternative to working a full-time job at home while caring for their child full-time may bring a tear to their tired eyes. This relief is often short-lived as daycares send out plans for re-opening. Often these emails include a list of instructions longer than the recipes for making sourdough bread that seem to be all over social media. With these instructions, we are again reminded that this is not a return to life as usual. And the anxiety and fear re-emerge. We wonder if these precautions are enough. Is it too soon? And if we do not re-open childcare facilities, is how we are managing sustainable?
This ambivalence is not only shared by adults, but also acutely felt by the children in our lives. If we do decide to send our children to childcare or school outside the home, how do we help them manage their big emotions in what is not the typical “back to school” transition”?
- Start preparing them now by returning to routines that have become less “routine.” Many routines such as bedtimes have become less strict in the recent weeks. By slowly returning to a predictable and, perhaps, earlier bedtime, you are helping set the stage for a return to other routines. An earlier bedtime will also help your child get sufficient sleep if he/she will be waking up earlier and be less cranky when getting out the door.
- Ask about what your child may be feeling and be ready to validate those emotions. It is hard to hear that our child may be scared or sad, but it is important to let them know that what they are feeling is normal, and that you can handle hearing about it. This shows them that feelings are not something to be scared of, and that you as their parent can tolerate all the emotions, not just the happy/fun ones. This will also help in the future, when you want your teenager to feel comfortable communicating openly with you. We also worry that we might not have the right words and will say the wrong thing. Being with your child in scary times is more important than having exactly the right words. If the idea of not having a script is too much, Holdin Pot and Once I Was Very Very Scared both by Chandra Gosh Ippen and Erich Ippen are two great books about managing difficult emotions.
- Younger children may not be able to express verbally how they are feeling, but there are other clues. Your child may have more tantrums, be clingier, or more aggressive. Your toilet-trained child may have accidents. “Baby talk” may recur. Usually these are our child’s way of telling us that they have worries about being taken care of. This “regression” may be frustrating. Being patient will help them manage these worries during this transition.
- Read books about separating after being together for so long such as The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney. You can use toys to play out what the characters may be feeling and help your child think about things that might make the characters feel better. Could the llama bring a picture of his family for the cubby? (Of course, check with the child care/school provider to see what might be allowed).
- Other resources such as Zero to Three and National Child Traumatic Stress Network, have many articles and factsheets on supporting your child during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the return to what was ‘routine’ is fraught with anxiety, parents can take steps to prepare themselves and their child for an easier transition. If the anxiety becomes overwhelming, and you need help in coping with the uncertainty, The Ross Center is here for you. We have specialists available to work with children as young as 2 years old, and adult therapists who can help when worry and anxiety are out of control.
Hannah Snyder, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with children (and their families) ages 6 months through teens, as well as young adults. She recently joined The Ross Center and is seeing patients in both our Washington DC and Northern Virginia offices. Contact Us to schedule an appointment with Dr. Snyder.