The re-opening of schools can be a stressful time for many children and parents as they navigate yet another turn on this journey of parenting in a pandemic. With return to school being voluntary here in Canada, parents are asked to make an impossible decision during a very confusing time. There are no ideal options out there today. Information provided is incomplete, and guidelines lack clarity. The only thing we all agree on is that school life will be very different.
As a researcher on the development of emotional resilience in families, I was recently asked to speak about what parents can do to nurture the emotional well-being of their children during this transition. In this article, I offer some insights, and actions parents can take to support their children’s emotional health and development during these difficult times.
Tune into your child’s emotional world, and help them make sense of it.
My tween daughter, usually the most laid back person in the family, has had many angry, melancholy and panicky episodes lately. She misses hanging out with her friends at school, having casual conversations about schoolwork, cool Tiktok videos and weird news nuggets. She cannot wait to go back to school. Yet she has so many worries that keep her up at night. What if it is awkward? What if others are now better than me at math? What if my friends will not be there, or in my group, or are closer to others now?
My younger child has sensory challenges that makes it hard for her to be in a classroom. She has loved being at home, but misses her teacher and friends. She wants and does not want to go back to school. Just knowing that going back to school is now possible makes butterflies happen all over her body, and she cannot say why. Thoughts of seeing her friends again lights her up but also sometimes makes her shrivel and bury her face in pillows. Lately, she has been falling to pieces more often. Life’s little frustrations (missing shoe, spilled drink, careless words) she had managed well before now leaves her screaming or bawling her eyes out.
Going back to school, or continuing to stay home when others are returning, can be an emotionally complex time for children. They may feel any combination of excited, scared, relieved, sad, angry, disappointed, jealous, nervous, happy or stressed. Depending on where they are in their emotional development, they may or may not know what they are feeling, and how to feel better. These feelings can become overwhelming and get in the way of being able to regulate their actions so they can have an enjoyable time with others.
As parents, we can help them make sense of their feelings, and help them come up with ways to cope. Here are a few things to try.
Keep an open mind and ask open questions. “You said you don’t know if you want to go back to school. Can you say more about that?”. Open questions create space for them to reflect and speak thoughts aloud. This can help them with emotional processing, you with understanding their inner world, and both of you with feeling more connected to each other.
Offer labels or ways to describe how they are feeling. “It sounds like you might be feeling nervous about being around your friends again”, or “I wonder if you are feeling a little scared…”. This could be especially helpful for younger kids who may have a more limited emotion vocabulary. Some studies show that when we hear or say a word that feels right for how we feel inside, the emotional center of our brains automatically calms down. Being able to recognize and name feelings is important for regulating emotions, and is a foundational skill for emotional intelligence. This “name it to tame it” theory is well supported in emotion research.
Validate these emotional experiences. “Gosh, what a tricky situation to be in. Of course, you would feel a little scared.” or “If it was me, I would feel nervous too.” Emotions are an automatic response to stimuli. In other words, we cannot help what we feel, even if we know it is not logical, desired, or helpful sometimes. With many experiences being so new to them, children often have big feelings in situations that may not seem to affect others as much. To have an adult validate their feelings as right or normal helps them trust themselves and feel understood. The power of feeling seen and understood cannot be underestimated, and goes a long way towards dialling down the intensity of big feelings.
Make a plan. When they are calm, help them work through tricky situations or thoughts. Gently suggest ways to think differently- reframing, challenging or redirecting worrisome thoughts. Empower them with actions they can take. For example, my tween emailed her teacher to ask to be in the same group as her friends. If it is situation-specific, discuss and walk through what they can do when it comes up. Role playing can be very helpful. My daughters and I practice what they can say or do if things become awkward or frustrating.
If you can only do one thing, this one’s it- fill them up with love and connection. Decades of research on child development show that the most important ingredient for children’s well-being and resilience is feeling loved. Feeling loved brings a stable sense of security and connection to you that enables them to cope with adversity, whether at school or at home. So fill them up with acts that assure them of your unconditional love and unbreakable connection. This can be big hugs, words, joining in their play, love notes, and extra moments of being fully present with them. This week I have prepped myself to be more forgiving and indulgent, foregoing schoolwork and pre-made plans for longer morning snuggles, ice cream dates and laying on the love to a whole new level of cringe.
Prepare for the new normal.
In many schools, there are new screening, handwashing, seating and eating guidelines. If your kids are going back to school, prepare them for the new procedures in place. Talking about these in detail and practicing them can help soothe anxiety. Connect with the principal and teachers, voice your questions and concerns so you can feel assured and heard. Don’t forget to show them some love for showing up for their students, they have become our new frontline workers.
If you have the mental space for this, prepare your children for practicing kindness and gratitude. It is helpful to have conversations about being kind to anyone wearing or not wearing a mask, and to be mindful of their reactions if someone sneezes or coughs. Remind them to appreciate the teachers for being there.
When I feel overwhelmed, I find comfort in remembering that parents have been doing this work of nurturing their children through challenging times for thousands of years on these very lands. Together, we too will get through this, and emerge stronger and wiser for it.
This blog post is part of my article, How parents can support their child’s emotional well-being when schools re-open, on medium.com, click here for full article.