Talk to your kids about the risks of returning to some places and the rules of your area as you begin to go back out again.
As New York slowly opens up, many parents are wondering how their child will react to reentering it. Most kids will have some natural hesitations—about parents going back to work, about the safety of playdates, about returning to camp or school. To make matters more complicated, the world they know will be changed. Since it’s our job as parents to help them through any anxiety they may be feeling, we spoke to experts about how best to reassure kids as they get back into the new normal.
If They’re Worried About Getting Sick
Your kids may have overheard more about COVID-19 than you realize—from conversations with other adults, social media, or the news. So it is important to understand what your kids are thinking and feeling about the virus and its risks. The best way to do this is to talk to them about it—find out what they know and be honest with them about what’s truth and rumor.
Amy Altenhaus, P.h.D., a psychologist in private practice in the New York area, says parents need to remain calm during these conversations because kids will be looking for cues. “You need to listen to what they are actually asking you and respond in a calm manner,” she says. Also, kids from different age ranges will have different responses to fear. “A very young child may worry that everyone who gets COVID-19 will die. They may worry that their parents or teachers will die,” she says. Jenna Velez, a social worker and the vice president of External Affairs at the Mental Health Association of Westchester, says “preoccupation or worry about a caregiver getting sick could manifest in difficulty concentrating, headaches/stomachaches, irritability and/or trouble sleeping.” Dr. Altenhaus urges parents to reassure both kids and teenagers that there is a very small percentage of kids who become infected with COVID-19.
Teenagers might also need to hear logic and statistics—they might need to understand how the chances of getting infected are low for people who take precautions. “Older children may benefit from studying how we have survived other pandemics. You can point them to information from reliable sources like the CDC, Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, on how to protect yourself and follow established guidelines for getting back to established activities,” Dr. Altenhaus suggests.
Jessica Dym Bartlett, developmental scientist and co-director of Early Childhood Research at the nonprofit research organization Child Trends who recently published a paper about how to support children’s emotional well-being during this time, urges parents to emphasize the positive. “All the way through the age spectrum, kids need to hear, in some form, ‘you’re going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, and the grownups in this world are working really hard to make sure of it.'”
“You can check in with your child a day or two later after a discussion to see if they have any questions,” Dr. Altenaus adds. “Do a lot of listening. Encourage them to come to you. If you do not have the answer, tell them you will help them find the answer.”
If They’re Worried About Going Back into the World
Reentering real life will be tricky for some kids. Institutions and businesses will have different rules and regulations. People will be wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding certain activities. Velez suggests parents “help them understand that familiar places may feel unfamiliar due to physical changes and different practices that may be implemented.” She also urges parents to practice wearing masks at home. “Younger children may not be able to make the direct connection between these actions and public safety, so making a game out of it could be helpful, having them imagine they are superheroes who protect the world by wearing their masks and washing their hands.”
Bartlett thinks it will help to maintain your routine—both at home and when things start to open up. “This is true for both adults and kids, but especially kids, and the younger you go, the more structure is needed for kids to feel safe and secure,” she says. Having a clear sense of when things are going to happen each day gives kids a sense of well-being.
For example, if you’re going to the doctor, Altenhaus recommends calling the doctor ahead of time to find out how she will conduct the visit. Then let your child know exactly what will happen when you arrive. “It is ok to feel some anxiety,” she says. “You want to help your child deal with their anxiety in healthy ways at the level they can understand.”
Velez notes that younger children may experience separation anxiety as they adjust to post-quarantining real life. “The child may be more clingy, whiny, upset during transitions,” she warns. For teens, social anxiety that has been minimized during the quarantine might return when they are re-introduced to social settings.
In general, parents should not avoid activities that provoke anxiety, Velez says. “Avoiding feared activities can unintentionally strengthen the fear, so rather than avoiding situations, help the child develop coping skills that will enable them to reenter with more confidence and control. These coping skills can include deep breathing, positive imagery/creating a safe place, talking to a trusted adult, art, music. …whatever helps your child to feel more calm and grounded.”
And make sure your child knows that he is not alone. “Remind them that we are all in this together,” Velez says. “And what they are doing at school or camp is what you will be doing at work and in the community.”
If your child continues to express anxiety or fear, especially if it is affecting her ability to function, parents should reach out to a mental health professional.
For more information about safely returning to some semblance of normal, reference our guide to a safe and fun summer 2020.
Shana Liebman is the features editor of NYMetroParents. She’s a writer and editor who has worked for magazines including New York Magazine, Salon, and Travel & Leisure,—and she is the mom of two energetic little boys.