Across the United States, after what seems like an eternity of quarantine, some kids are returning back to school physically. Now that they’ve been at home for the past five months or so, they may be a bit more attached than usual. Add in several more months of distance learning, and it makes sense to practice separation with kids before the big day arrives. But how do we as parents navigate this new normal and make sure our children are as unfazed and happy and calm as possible? (Especially if we're freaking out on the inside ourselves.)
Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, says in her own professional experience she’s seeing a lot of children in her practice struggling already with separation anxiety and worries about returning to school after so much time at home. And Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist, says that she believes it can be “very helpful” to participate in some practice separation behavior before returning to school.
“Even if a parent does not overtly tell their children that they are anxious and worried about the upcoming changes, children will sense — and absorb — a parent’s emotional state. So it’s truly important for parents to process their own stress and anxiety with each other, with fellow parents, and with adult family members,” Manly tells Romper.
So how to “practice” separation from your kids? Manly says, “A month or so before school begins, parents may want to visit the school grounds with the child during off hours to tour the school campus while wearing masks and even carrying backpacks. Parents can also practice separation by taking a child to the school playground or recreation area and talking about practicing healthy behaviors.” Additionally, a week or two before school begins, Manly suggests that parents arrange for their kids to visit the school again with one of the child’s best friends — while socially distanced of course.
Lear suggests that another way to build tolerance again in the weeks before going back to school is to start small. “For younger kids, this might mean five to 15 minutes of separation — and work your way up from there,” she tells Romper. “You can collaborate with your child and get them involved in creating increasingly challenging situations in which they can safely practice being independent from you. Hanging out in different spots in the park, spending an afternoon with a grandparent, or having an older child stay at home while you run a quick errand are all safe ways to practice separation while still maintaining social distancing,” she says.
And apparently, “practice separations” will be beneficial for not only the child, but parents as well, according to Manly. “When a parent feels more relaxed and secure in the child’s return to school, the child will feel much safer and more confident. Parents can also share basic concerns with children at age-appropriate levels while also tempering any concern with positive words and supportive actions. To this end, ‘practice separations’ can allow both the child and the parent the opportunity to plan and rehearse positive separation strategies,” she says.
And it's best to prepare yourself for some behavioral changes in your. kids. Lear says that the first week can definitely be rough, and especially rough on kids who have anxiety in general already. "It might be really tempting to cave and let your child stay home when you see them in distress, but consistency is the best way to help kids overcome their separation anxiety faster," she says. "Staying home from school will just make getting back to school harder the next day, and can start a vicious cycle.”
Manly adds that other behaviors could range from irritability, anger, and anxiety, "to tearfulness or quiet withdrawal."
“Parents can comfort children by being attentive to their changeable emotional states without judgment," Manly says. "In fact, a simple comment such as, ‘It seems that you are a bit anxious, and that’s normal given all of the changes taking place; I’m here for you if you’d like to talk’ can go a long way to easing a child’s worries.” Lear also suggests focusing on your child's strengths and positive attributes, like reminding them how brave they are, to bolster their self-confidence.
And because children pick up on their parents’ stress and anxiety, it’s important for you to remain calm, Manly says. So maybe stay off Facebook. “Given that news reports tend to stimulate anxiety, parents who listen to inflammatory or provocative news reports when children are present may find that their children are more anxious or worried,” she says. She also adds that it's important to prepare your child for how things might look different from the "old normal."
“By planting the seed of ‘positive differences’ in the child’s mind, the child will then not be focused on only the unfamiliar or negative changes. The new routine, though it may be unfamiliar, may actually be filled with some elements that both children and parents may come to embrace,” she says.
It’s also important to remember that some children may not be worried or upset about returning to school. “Many children are already expressing excitement about seeing their friends, teachers, and returning to ‘normal’ school life," Manly says. So try not to stress too much since your kids can pick up on that, and do a bit of practice before the big day. Deep breaths will help everyone.
Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist, author, advocate, and fear specialist
Katie Lear, a licensed clinical mental health counselor