- Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, resilience, and parenting who runs her own practice in New York.
- She says it’s time for parents to have a discussion with their kids about the possibilities of going (or not going) back to school in the fall.
- Communicate with your children directly and openly, Kennedy says, and explain that the situation is still uncertain.
- Be receptive to your child’s emotional needs as well — some children may be excited to go back to school, while others may be anxious or afraid.
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Soon enough, our kids will be going back to school. Well, we think. Maybe. In small groups. On some days, but maybe not others. And with the prospect of virtual school hanging over our heads. We are entering into the fall with hopes for a return to normalcy, dread of a return to strict quarantine, and loads of uncertainty for us and our children.
As a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, resilience, and parenting, my private practice is full of parents looking to support their children through difficult times. In my practice and from my followers on Instagram, I keep hearing the same question: How can we prepare our children for the transition ahead not knowing what school or sports or afternoon activities will look like?
Kids need our direct communication and emotional support. When the external world is full of change, we need to make sure our children’s family world is marked by honesty, understanding, and connection. As parents, let’s try to be reliable captains through the choppy waters ahead; this allows our children to feel safe and build resilience amidst the stormy weather.
Let’s walk through three key ways you can support your child; each section includes scripts so feel free to borrow some of these exact words as you prepare your kids for challenges ahead.
Explain the transition out of quarantine
Kids act how they feel, and when we don’t explain things clearly and directly to our children, they feel totally out of control… and then act totally out of control. Resilience comes from regulation, and regulation starts with understanding; we must clearly explain what’s happening in a child’s surroundings so she can feel safe and regulated.
Talk with your children about the upcoming transition. Give your children a story to understand what’s changed and why this transition is happening. If you don’t, your children will be left feeling alone and confused as to why their world suddenly switched from “Everything is unsafe — stay inside and near your parents!” to “All clear, go to school now, see you later!”
Here’s some sample scripts:
- “The coronavirus cold that was jumping from person to person… we have made so many of the germs go away. So many of the germs have gone away that it is now safe to return to school.”
- “We have been together for so long. Mommy and Daddy have been working from home, you have been learning and playing at home, and pretty soon, some of that is going to change. Mommy will be taking you to your school building, remember that one with the red bricks and yellow classroom? I will be dropping you off at the beginning of the day and always always always will come back at the end of the day. That’s a big change from what we’ve gotten used to, huh?”
- “What questions or worries do you have? We can talk about them now or come find me when new ones come up.”
Predict and prepare for feelings
We cope with difficult moments not by changing how we feel but by learning to regulate how we feel. And regulation comes from understanding and allowing. Kids’ most distressing moments occur when they feel intense emotions in a state of alone-ness; talking about feelings in advance, or as I call it, “emotional vaccination,” gives parents an opportunity to infuse connection and explanation into these moments before they even occur. This helps to reduce fear and interrupt a meltdown-cycle.
Children will be having strong feelings about the return to school — this is normal and healthy! During a time of threat (like we just lived through), proximity to parents is what feels safe to children, so drop off and separation will understandably feel scary… but less so if a parent helps emotionally prepare a child. The more you normalize a child’s feelings, the more resilient your child will be when the feelings come.
Some sample scripts and Ideas:
- “We’ve been home together for so many months! And pretty soon, you’re going back to school… in the school building, with teachers and other kids and not with Mommy and Daddy. What a change, huh! Hm… what might that be like for you?” Pause. Allow your child time to consider.
- “It’s ok if it feel a bit… weird to say goodbye to Mommy when I drop you off. Our body tends to feel a bit weird when we do new things, and drop off at school will feel new again because we have been home together for so long!”
- “Let’s practice our drop off routine before your first day of kindergarten: One hug, I say ‘Mommy always comes back, see you soon!,’ and then walk out, yes? Let’s practice now…”
- “I wonder what it’ll feel like to go back to school? What do you think will feel awesome or amazing… and what do you think will feel weird or sad?”
- “I know you’re going to tell me, ‘Mom! I know, geez!’ but I’m going to tell you anyways: I’ll be here when you get home from school.”
- “It may feel weird to be apart after so many months of being together. If it does feel that way, that would make sense. It’ll feel less weird each day.”
Talk about what we know and what we don’t know
Don’t make false promises; be honest and direct and sit with your child in the discomfort of not-knowing.
We all like lists and categorization systems; they help us feel in control and prepared in the face of change. Label what you know and what you don’t know to help your child access her own agency and resilience through this transition.
Here are some sample scripts:
- “This is one of those times where there are things we know and things we don’t know. Let’s go over them so we are all on the same page.”
- “Things we know: School will start again in 10 days. Let’s create a countdown and X out each day that passes so we know what to expect.”
- “More things we know: Kids and teachers are expected to wear masks to keep leftover germs away. A teacher will take your temperature every day you get off the bus. You’ll be asked to do more frequent hand-washing.”
- “Ok, some things we don’t know: We don’t know if you’ll be in a group with everyone in your class or if the teachers will divide the class into smaller groups. Another thing: We don’t know if your soccer team will play this fall.”
- “Here’s another thing we do know: I will always be here for you. You can tell me how school feels and I will listen and try my best to understand. I will be here every night when you go to bed and every morning when you wake up.”
- “It’s hard not to know things. For adults too.”
Parents: You got this. This school year is likely to be filled with ups and downs, changes upon changes, and a variety of emotions from kids and adults. We must connect to ourselves with compassion, understanding, and patience before we’re able to connect to our kids in this way; use these same three steps with yourself, talking to yourself about this big transition, preparing yourself for a mix of feelings, and reminding yourself what you know and don’t know. And feel free to add some extra compassion by borrowing the words I’ve been saying to myself each morning and night: “This is a tough time to be a parent. I’m doing the best I can. I am doing enough. I am enough.”
Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, resilience, and parenting. A graduate of Duke University and Columbia University, she maintains a private practice in midtown Manhattan, runs parenting groups and workshops, lectures on various mental health issues, and consults for organizations. Follow her on Instagram @drbeckyathome, and read more of her thoughts on her website.