Preparing for an Eventual Return to Normal (and School) Post-COVID
Now that the vaccine is beginning to reach more people and COVID numbers are starting to drop, the possibility of our kids returning to school in the fall — and perhaps even sooner — is more than a tantalizing mirage. But after so much time at home, this possibility is also fraught with concerns and many lingering unknowns. We spoke with Rami Aizic (JD, MFT), who specializes in child and adolescent psychotherapy, about how we can start preparing ourselves and our kids for an eventual return to semi-normal.
And of course, no matter what our districts decide, many of us don’t feel comfortable or won’t be able to send our kids back to school or summer camps until COVID is no longer in our communities, so the intervening months feel painfully long. This is particularly true as we confront potential losses for kids who plan to stay on a virtual schedule while their peers go back. Stay tuned for part two of this series where we’ll share survival strategies and tips to help keep our kids engaged as times wears on.
Q: How do we start preparing our kids for life post-COVID?
While nobody knows how to do this because we’ve never been through anything like this before, the bottom line for parents is to try to embrace the ongoing helplessness. That’s the antithesis of what a parent is supposed to do, from a primal sense. We’re supposed to be our kids’ protectors, providers, and nurturers. To some extent, we now find ourselves in a world where we can’t, and that’s where our own anxiety kicks in.
- The first step we need to take is to look at our own issues and mental health triggers and be careful not to project our anxieties onto our kids. That will just make them more anxious.
- Talk with them about the things we do know. While we don’t know exactly what school is going to look like, we do know we’re going to be in a classroom again. For some kids, things can feel very binary — good/bad, whole/empty, etc. — so it can be helpful to guide them in visualizing the various ways we’ll get there. Talking about the possibilities can help kids internalize the fact that while we don’t know all the details yet, we can imagine what going back to school will look like.
- Help them create a wish list. Start by talking about all the things they might be looking forward to. It’s important to give them hope that some of the things they want to see at school again are possibilities. Of course, we don’t want to mislead them. You don’t want them to start thinking, My mom said I can get up and walk out of class whenever I want to! Instead, ask them to list what they like about distance learning, and why having the same kinds of things in the classroom might be helpful for them. Talk together about some ways you can imagine integrating these changes into the school routine.
Q: One of our parents recently shared that her daughter feels free to be herself at home, and she worries how that freedom will change when her daughter returns to what sometimes amounts to an ableist environment. For kids who stim, this is true as well.
For our kids who feel more comfortable in the home environment, we now know that virtual school is an option. There are now more ways of getting through elementary, middle, high school, and college online, and some families have learned during the pandemic that this might be a better option for their child.
The ability to stim and to feel more free and autonomous has been a gift for many kids who feel different from their peers. They still have to do what adults tell them to do — but on some conscious or unconscious level, they’re also doing the adult work of having to hold it together.
To have to not stim, to not be authentically themselves, is exhausting. It’s also enraging, and that’s why some kids with disabilities often seem to explode or act out more at the end of the day — they’re doing a lot of work underneath the surface just to get there.
Q: Can we talk about stimming? For many kids, this is an enjoyable activity, a release, but as parents, we worry about how other kids react to it — it can be loud and interruptive, and it can also prevent peer interaction, not to mention the ability to pay attention at school.
When we introduce a concept such as how stimming might be perceived by others, we have to be very sensitive with our language. The conversation may disrupt a child’s sense of emotional equilibrium for a moment, but if it’s done with love and trust from a parent, the child will find it easier to forgive than if it comes from a stranger.
From there, we can slowly introduce the idea of what they think they might be able to control about the behavior. It’s a form of replacement therapy that is mental or visual rather than behavioral. For some kids, immediate behavioral changes can feel shaming, and that’s what we want to avoid. We don’t want to say that they need to change the behavior — kids will hear, I’m bad for doing this, but I can’t control it, so I guess I’m always bad. We want them to come up with their own ideas about ways they can start to have the smallest amounts of control over the behavior. It could inspire them and lead to positive feelings of self.
Your child might tell you that this is something they can’t do. But even having this conversation shows them that they’re educating you about what’s going on for them. You can reinforce how important it is for you to learn about them and about this behavior that is a part of them.
Another option is to introduce the behavior to the class. Ideally, a kid could stand up in front of their classmates and say, I just want you all to know that I do this. I helped one teacher do this for a child I worked with who has Tourette syndrome. She sent out a letter to the room parents before the school year began that said, While every class has many different kinds of kids, this year we will have a child who has Tourette syndrome. She explained the activity we’d planned for the class to share one thing about themselves that they wanted the other kids in the class to know. When it came time for the activity, the child stood up and said, I have Tourette syndrome, and what that means is [X], and because of it, I do [X]. It’s not apologetic — it’s explanatory.
Q: Can you apply this same strategy to meltdowns?
Remember that a meltdown is usually a result of something that a kid is not able to articulate; there’s something else going on. As parents, we can try to identify what it might be in a post-meltdown talk, but sometimes that’s not possible.
You can start the conversation by saying, You know how sometimes you have a meltdown? When that happens, what can I know that might help me to help you? Introduce the idea that you want to help them help themselves, but that you know they can’t help themselves. As humans, we are ambushed by emotions and feelings, and we have to learn how to respond to those feelings. If you put this into your child’s language, you can explain it to them: Sometimes feelings are like bullies. “I’m Frustration, and I’m going to make you annoyed at everybody around you even if you don’t want it.” What would you want to say to that bully? “You’re not welcome here, Frustration!” If you can get them to think of certain feelings as bullies, it puts some distance between them and their emotions. So eventually, maybe they can say, I’m feeling very frustrated and I think I’m going to have a meltdown. Praise them for identifying the emotion.
Q: How can we support kids who are experiencing low self-esteem after nearly a year of so little peer interaction and so much frustration with virtual therapies and school?
One way to help kids understand that life isn’t all bad is to show them. If they have low self-esteem, help them see the things they’re good at that they can feel proud of. If they have a hard time with something, instead of pointing out why it’s hard, help them think of things they do that make them feel good about themselves.
Start by helping your kid identify the areas they feel low about and write them down; in a second column, list the things they do that make them feel good about themselves. It doesn’t matter how immaterial it may seem. Then break down the low self-esteem pieces. With kids, it’s not so much about the psychology as it is the behavior. When you feel bad about yourself for [doing X], what do you wish you could do instead?
Q: Are there other things we can do to get our kids ready to be part of a group again?
Building on the idea of learning about how everybody has something that makes them unique, we can help normalize our kids’ differences by having these conversations together. For example, before having a playdate with a peer (virtual or otherwise), you can say, I’m going to let so-and-so’s mom know that when you’re hanging out together and you need to do [X], they’ll know it’s just part of who you are. I wonder what your friend might do that they’d like to share with you? Maybe one friend needs to go to the bathroom more often than their siblings; maybe they need to jump up and down. You can help your kid and their friend come up with something to do together as a funny, quirky thing that only the two of them do together; maybe every few minutes they can call out a word like “pterodactyl.”
What you’re doing is creating a “we.” This is part of attachment theory — it’s about building bridges for kids who have differences. When “you” and “me” come together, “we” like to call out funny words, play Legos, do a hand-slap thing or a silly dance, etc. If kids can come together and do something different as a “we,” we’re helping them understand that they’re not that different. You can also teach the “we” concept at home — for example, when it’s bedtime, you can explain that after they go to bed, it’s the adults’ “we” time to be together; and when you and your kid are doing something special together, that’s another “we” time.
The “we” concept is something they can take into the classroom and into adulthood. When you talk about going back to school, you can remind them, Don’t forget you’re going to be part of a “we,” so today, you can be the “we-you” instead of the “me-you.” When you’re part of a “we,” you don’t always get to do everything you want to do, but if you need some “me” time, let’s make sure you can have it while you’re there. And then, when you’re ready, you can come back to the “we.”
Are you planning to an eventual return to school post-COVID, whenever that may be? What are some of your worries and concerns for your kids’ re-acclimation? Here’s what some Special X parents have to say: