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Separation Worries Could Be Significant as Schools Reopen

How parentscan help children manage their feelings.

As I was physically distancing (my preferred term since the other one seems anti-social) from the young family ahead of me in line at the grocery store, the masked kindergartener turned, made eye contact, and said, “Hi.” Her father saw her and said, “Sorry, she’s kind of hungry to say hello to anyone.” I said it was fine and asked whether she was headed to school this fall. “She can’t wait, but we’re not so sure; it’s gonna be tough.” You bet. So many young children have had months at home with their closest family members, people they often prefer to all others. Losing that is never easy.

This will not be your typical back-to-school transition. Adults have been tested to their limits balancing work, family, and childcare demands, financial worries, and the loss of the social supports that sustain them. Unprecedented levels of uncertainty have depleted our resilience, and our children are keenly aware that we are stretched thin. This is not the secure platform from which the back-to-school rocket typically launches. What has not changed is that their families are still the ones that know and love their children best and are the ones best prepared to launch them successfully.

Here is a pre-launch checklist:

  • Consciously maintain an optimistic tone about returning. Discuss your children’s friends, activities, teachers, and free play times. Yes, there will be somewhat confusing new rules, but it may be worth the trouble to be back in school.
  • When your children ask what will be different about school, be prepared with answers. Know the new drop-off routines and the ways classrooms will be set up under distancing guidelines with new mask-wearing and handwashing rules. Get answers from your school, then wait for, or encourage, your children’s questions.
  • A week or so before launch, restore school night bedtimes and school morning wake-up routines so that your children don’t have to adjust to too many changes simultaneously.
  • Read together to help build a conversational vocabulary to describe what you both might be feeling so those big emotions are not so distressing when they arrive. Two of my favorites are Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney and Bye-Bye Time by Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen. Librarians are also great resources.
  • If you enjoy playing with your preschooler, set up some pretend play about school routines, such as hanging up coats, visiting the cubbies, sitting for circle time, having snack time, and learning songs. This only helps if it’s fun for both of you; don’t force it if it’s not your thing.

Here is what to expect once they achieve orbit, which will be quite an accomplishment:

  • Watch for some back-sliding in certain things they have already mastered developmentally. New independent phases might be replaced with periods of clinging. Their ability to use their words may disappear for a while, they may become temporarily more aggressive at home with siblings or pets. Also, toilet training might slip a little. This is a huge change, and it takes a lot of mental horsepower that has to come from somewhere.
  • If they are having trouble with the new rules, such as wearing masks, make a small album with pictures of both of you wearing masks, washing your hands, and physically distancing at home, and let them take it to school just to show that it’s not a different universe.
  • Listen to their upsets without rushing in with a fix. Provide empathy first, give comfort second, and only offer a tool afterward. Their tools are growing fast, and to offer yours prematurely is to short-circuit that growth opportunity, even though you are probably a great problem-solver.