July 6, 2020
by Dr. Jules Nolan, Mounds Park Academy school psychologist
The oft-cited advice to “put your own mask on before assisting others” is taking on new meaning during COVID-19. How we take care of ourselves influences how smoothly our kids adjust to new habits and routines. They are able to sense our emotional state (co-regulation) and when we are relaxed and confident, they are better able to feel the same way. As we head into fall 2020, we need to be positive with our kids, even if we feel a bit uncertain. The next year and a half will be bumpy, but together we can manage it and develop new talents and skills that will serve us throughout our lives. The Mounds Park Academy team is working hard to make the upcoming school year a safe and positive experience for our entire community.
Given our current reality, we need to prepare differently for the upcoming academic year than we typically do. Here are some tips:
- Be positive about the upcoming year. We look forward to welcoming your child back to MPA this fall. You may feel worried and anxious about starting school, and that is both normal and reasonable. Manage those feelings with a friend, a partner, or a professional so that you may talk with your child about going back to school in a confident way. If you feel anxious, they will feel anxious. You might say, “We don’t know exactly how things will unfold, but I can tell you that we will be safe, you will get a great education, and you will have fun!”
- Discuss concerns in private. If you’re worried about COVID-19 in general, or as it relates to school specifically, talk to your partner or a trusted friend when your child is not around. Use text messaging or email to discuss the coronavirus and the school year, if time away from your child is hard to find. Once you are in a place of reasonable confidence, it is important to talk to your child about going back to school. Sometimes we think that if we avoid the conversation, we save our children from feeling fear. The opposite is true. If you dodge the subject, they will feel like something is wrong. In the absence of information, they tend to fill in the blanks with negative, scary thoughts.
- Fake it until you make it. Assure your kids that everything is going to be just fine, even if you’re not so sure yourself. Kids who are certain that everything will work will be able to persevere because they feel safe. So even if you’re somewhat nervous about how the summer and school year will play out, portray confidence that everything will be ok. The team at MPA is here for you, and we will get through this together.
- Practice wearing masks and social distancing at home and in public. We already do many things to protect ourselves and our children from danger (child seats, bike helmets, seat belts, immunizations, baby gates, stranger rules, fire and tornado drills etc.) We present these without over-emphasizing the danger that we are avoiding by using precautions. Masks and social distancing will be new and unusual in the beginning, but they shouldn’t be any scarier than the other ways that we keep ourselves safe. Children will get used to new precautions and will not be traumatized by new practices, so long as they know how to do it and what to expect. Now is the time to practice wearing masks and social distancing to make it feel normal. Help your child properly wear a mask (nose and mouth covered, tie around both ears) and judge what six feet is (with arms outstretched, you shouldn’t be able to touch the person next to you).
- Limit your own news consumption. To protect your own mental health, you need to create a barrier to the amount of information you consume. While it’s important to be informed, you need to protect your brain! So perhaps limit news consumption to once or twice per day. Research shows that constant information keeps our brains in a state of hyperarousal, which fuels stress and produces more cortisol. A constant stream of this stress hormone is bad for our bodies and brains. So if you’re checking into the news more than three times a day, it’s just too much.
- Expect regression. During times of transition and stress, we see emotional and behavioral regression in kids—and ourselves. In the fall we will be adapting to a new environment. Any time we are in adaptation mode we regress—even if it’s a positive change. For example, children who were toilet trained may start to have accidents. Kids who typically control their behavior may throw tantrums. Be prepared to see some level of regression. However, if you see consistent decline, seriously concerning behavior or emotional regulation issues that don’t improve after four weeks, seek professional help.
- Anticipate lower initiative and less persistence. When your brain is trying to adapt to a new environment, the fight-or-flight response kicks in. We are in fear mode, and it’s harder to start and persist with an activity when we’re in this state. You may feel scattered, have poor memory, inability to initiate a task, difficulty persisting etc., and your children will feel the same way. Have patience with this and increase the amount of “down-time” your children have. Practice calming and comforting routines like baking, watching cartoons together, playing simple board games, throwing a ball together etc., Don’t get worried if the comfort activity seems developmentally lower than expected for your child’s age. Often, children rely on those comfort activities they have “grown out of” during times of change.
- Focus on relationships at the start of school. The good news about managing stress is that relationships are at the center of the process. Our priority this fall will be to develop and reignite relationships with friends, teachers and everyone at the school. Helping kids feel safe through these critical connections is our main goal. Collectively, we have to be careful not to push them too hard academically, as it will be difficult to engage in academic learning until everyone feels safe.
- Order and read books from Magination Press. The American Psychological Association’s Magination Press has many books and other resources on various mental health topics geared toward kids of all ages. They have books specifically about the pandemic such as “Unstuck! 10 Things To Do To Stay Safe And Sane During The Pandemic” for preteens and teens and “A Kid’s Guide To Coronavirus,” a picture book for younger kids. They also have books on being brave when you’re scared.
- Know the key to great parenting: to love your child and pay attention. Parents today have more pressure than ever to provide a “perfect” childhood experience. We worry if our children are sad, intervene to keep them from being disappointed, and pressure ourselves to react perfectly when they misbehave. This is neither realistic nor is it helpful. We don’t owe our children a fairytale childhood. We owe them our love and attention, but also our imperfection. Remember that you are not preparing your children for a perfect world, but for the world that will be available to them—complete with mistakes, disappointments, failures, and injustices.
As we head into the fall, focus on caring for yourself and try not to live too far into the future. Muster all the patience and empathy you can and model self-compassion. The basis of what your child needs to be healthy is really quite simple: it’s their relationship with you, connection to the school community, healthy food, and exercise. Finally, don’t underestimate the valuable skills your children are learning as they navigate strange times and difficult emotions. Ultimately, this difficult time with many new challenges will make them into strong and resilient people.