There is still a long way to go until life returns to a new normal, but as the government announces that some schools will reopen from 1 June, many of us will be concerned about how to best prepare our children for reintegration post-lockdown.
Ministers say that schools will soon reopen for very young children in nurseries and pre-schools, and primary school children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 – although with smaller class sizes. Secondary schools and further education colleges in England will also prepare to begin some face-to-face contact with Year 10 and 12 pupils, who have key exams next year.
Clinical Psychologist Dr Emma Svanber, who specialises in parenthood, is here to address some of the worries you might have about your children having more physical contact with the outside world, from managing their potential anxiety about returning to school to how to stop them from worrying about any potential losses or family hardship that have taken place during lockdown.
How to manage a child’s anxiety about returning to school:
“It’s natural as parents to want to protect our children from difficult feelings, but their anxiety is to be expected. The hardest thing for us is being able to bear that anxiety for them. Encouraging them to talk about their worries can help them become less scary – often they come out best at bedtime, or when you are doing something side by side. We can be tempted to come in with something to ‘fix’ their worries, but often just listening to them and validating how worrying it can feel can be enough. You might want to reassure your children too that it is your job and their teachers’ job to keep them safe and that is everyone’s priority.”
How to comfort a child worried about having fallen behind at school during lockdown:
“This is going to impact on some kids way more than others, and it is a real sadness that the more vulnerable children in our society will be the most affected by this lockdown while others will have found it a positive experience. Teachers, who have been often working incredibly hard to support our children’s education and wellbeing over the past weeks, are now working hard to think about the transition back to school when it comes. Again, we can reassure our children that it is their teacher’s job to support them in catching up, and it is our job to support their wellbeing so that they feel able to learn.”
How to deal with any germ-related anxiety:
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we do see more health and hygiene related anxieties – in both children and adults – as a result of this. The one thing we can do to feel more in control in the face of this invisible threat is to be wary of germs, and take steps to control our exposure. Look out for any signs that a natural concern is becoming a little obsessive – handwashing more frequently than is required, a fear of going out, being overly worried about seeing other people. These are all worries that we all hold to some extent and it is going to take time to find a healthy balance. As with many anxieties, it’s helpful to hold in mind that we can control some things but many things are out of our control. So helping our children to learn to bear those uncertainties can help – e.g. by talking with them about the things we can control and highlighting the importance of the here and now.”
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How to address any separation anxiety:
“In my view, the emphasis is on supporting children to separate again in their own time rather than weaning off. Parents are their children’s safety net, and if the world is feeling a little scary at the moment it is natural that children will want to stay closer. We can feel that we should push them forward at these times, but often the quickest and most supportive way to help a child separate is to pull them a little closer. Again, acknowledging that their feelings are valid and that it’s ok they will miss you when they return to school (of course, this doesn’t apply to all children, some will be very happy to return to school). For children who are having trouble separating, you might want to do something to help you feel connected during the day, such as a ‘hug button’ on your hands.”
How to ensure your children still feel safe and reassured post-lockdown:
“This is going to be different for every child and family, and actually in many ways it is this phase which will be more anxiety provoking for children as they will have to face a world that looks a little different (as we all will). Just as when we went into lockdown, we saw our children adjust (sometimes loudly!), they will have to go through another adjustment process, and probably more following that too as things will gradually shift. It’s helpful for us as parents to expect that, so that we can find ways to support them when they do express their sadness, worry or grief. How you do that will depend on what works for you and your child, but thinking of yourself as a container for their feelings can help. It’s important too that you have a container for your own feelings as it can be emotionally exhausting riding those waves with them.”
Gallery: Children around the world return to school (Reuters)
How to manage any disappointment of missed milestones:
“This has been so hard for children, missing out on these joys, and especially those who were waiting to leave primary or secondary school. Again, just holding that disappointment can be enough, allowing them to share their disappointments without rushing in to fix things. Often they might then be able to come up with solutions which work for them.”
How to comfort a child worrying about any illness or loss, or even financial hardship within the family during the pandemic:
“This is a really really important question – and not just within the family but how unsafe the world at large can feel. Children may have heard us discussing the news, and even if they haven’t heard us they have also picked up on our own anxieties – that’s inevitable. So we have to expect that anxiety will be there for them, too. If we acknowledge that they are probably thinking about this more than we realise, it’s helpful to create space for them to be able to talk that through with us. If they have questions, answer them honestly but in an age appropriate way. If you’re feeling worried and sad yourself, it’s ok to let them know that too and show them your feelings (as long as you make it clear to them it is not their responsibility to fix them).
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Finally, understand that any reintegration will not be perfect – and that’s ok
“We should be aiming for seamless, as this will put pressure on not just us to ‘make things better’ but also on our kids not to share how difficult things might feel for them. It is going to be hard, life will feel different, and there will be a lot of new things to get used to. We will all – our children as well as us – have some grieving to do for the things we miss from before the pandemic. If we can bear it, allowing for the whole range of emotions to be expressed will allow our children (and us!) to get through the transition if not smoothly, then more smoothly. We can be so tempted to fix things, rushing in with ‘at least’s but we have to be ok with being sad about the sad stuff if we are going to create space to feel happy about the happy stuff!”
For free parenting resources, visit Svanber’s website at Mumologist.com.
Stay at home as much as possible to stop coronavirus spreading – here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don’t go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn’t available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.