Finally! What we’ve been awaiting for months is happening. As cities and regions across the country lift restrictions, we’re no longer cooped up indoors, away from friends and family. We should be immensely relieved, right? And yet, as hard as the quarantine was, reopening is presenting parents and kids with a different set of anxieties and challenges.
As we struggle to make plans for summer, the burden is on parents to decide, without as much clarity as we would like, what activities are safe enough. But that uncertainty is also distressing for many children.
While our experts at the Child Mind Institute are not epidemiologists who can advise you about the virus itself, they can offer advice about helping your child adapt to and prepare for the changes this summer is going to bring.
Plan, but stress flexibility
Planning ahead now, even if you can realistically only plan a few weeks out at a time, will help give kids a sense of safety and security. And most importantly, the whole family can plan for some much-needed, long-awaited fun.
But at the same time, be sure to acknowledge that those plans may have to be reassessed. Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, suggests focusing on flexibility. Letting your children know that you’re planning for a variety of possible scenarios — and including them in the planning — can lessen anxiety over how they’ll be spending the next few months. It’s also an important part of building resilience. If your plans do change, your child will be more prepared to handle their disappointment and adapt to new expectations.
Agree on ground rules
Trying to be both safe and social is a difficult balance to strike. Kids are likely anxious to see their friends but may also be afraid of getting sick. Establishing clear family rules will give kids a sense of control.
“The very first thing I would recommend,” says Stephanie Lee, PsyD, head of the ADHD and Behavioral Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, “is that parents and caregivers decide what’s comfortable for them and what the family rules are going to be about socialization moving forward. It’s important that whoever is running the show for these kids are all on the same page about what’s going to be safe.”
Only after the basic ground rules have been decided should you have that conversation with your child or adolescent. You want to empathize with their fears but also encourage them to think about the ways that your family will work together to help everyone stay safe and healthy.
Take it step-by-step
It will help kids feel more confident and manage their behavior if you emphasize that reopening is a gradual process, one careful step after another.
“They need to understand that even though things are opening up that doesn’t mean that we rush out and do everything,” says Janine Domingues, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “We can take our time and do this in a slow and step-by-step way, knowing that there are reputable sources that we can rely on to keep ourselves safe.”
For your adolescent, that may mean establishing rules about maintaining that six-foot distance from their friends, keeping their mask on and meeting friends outside where there’s less risk. For younger children it might mean hanging out with families that you know have also been quarantined. Whether kids are anxious about getting sick, or have trouble managing impulsive behavior, knowing what step they are in are right now can help them be comfortable. You can also discuss what other steps might come down the road, so that kids know you’re planning ahead even if they can’t do everything they want just yet.
“We want to provide some information and validate where their fears and worries are coming from,” says Dr. Domingues, “and take small steps towards the things that they can do or you can do as a family.”
Prepare children by coping ahead
Moving out of quarantine, with different families following different rules, is going to result in uncomfortable moments for kids as well as parents. Working with kids to anticipate unsafe situations they might find themselves in can help them feel more comfortable and make better decisions when the time comes.
If you’re deciding to allow them to do a socially distanced walk with a friend, coping ahead might mean rehearsing what they could do if their friend gets too close or takes off their mask.
“Your child or adolescent has to have that awkward conversation where they ask a friend to put their mask on or not get too close,” Dr. Domingues says. “That’s not easy for kids. Certainly, for children and adolescents having to draw those boundaries might increase some anxiety.” Planning their response can help reduce that anxiety and make it more likely that they stay safe if things do get tricky.
If you are planning to get together with grandparents for the first time in months, you might ask your child how they think they will feel when they see Grandma and Grandpa and still can’t give them a hug. “That might feel weird, but that’s okay,” she adds. “We can also plan for how they’re going to be able to cope with those feelings during that time.”
If you have a particularly anxious child, the first step to helping them cope is to validate their fears about going out.
When our children express a worry or a fear our inclination is to try to make that feeling go away, notes Dr. Busman. We might say something like, “You don’t need to worry about that, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” While that makes sense because we want to make kids feel better, it also gives them the impression that those emotions are wrong or not allowed.
Instead, helping them know that their feelings are valid will help them manage those feelings. “The first thing you can say is something like, ‘I know that you’re afraid,’ or sometimes just repeating what your child said is actually validating in itself. Then follow up with, ‘I understand. Let’s talk about that.’”
The conversation will help you find out what’s going on. “You might think they are worried about getting COVID, and that’s not an illogical leap, but they might be worried about something specific that, if you don’t invite more conversation, then you won’t actually know.” As much as you can, answer their questions, because that’s a nice opportunity to dispel any myths, correct any misinformation and then remind them what you and they are doing to stay safe and what rules you’re going to follow.
Once you’ve had an open conversation with your child about what they’re afraid of, Dr. Lee recommends something called “bravery practice” for kids who are balking about going out. The conversation might go something like this, she says: “I would love for you to ride your bike around the neighborhood. I feel like these streets are fine. I would love for you to swim and I would love for you to play a lawn game or a game outside. Which of those things do you think would be the easiest?”
With anxious kids, Lee suggests pairing that with some good-old-fashioned praise for bravery and maybe even identifying a reward for trying one of those “scary” things.
Be alert to signs of something more serious
“When kids are really avoiding any activities or really withdrawing, we want to watch that carefully,” says Dr. Lee. “That coupled with a change in mood or sleep or appetite really could signal that maybe something else more serious is wrong. You want to watch that and make sure your child is not getting depressed and reach out for services if they need more support.”