It’s September now, and school is starting in a few days ( … maybe?). It feels like over the past few weeks the plans have changed almost daily. I understand the reason behind this: we are in uncharted territory. We’ve never attempted a return to school during a global pandemic. I truly believe that everyone is doing the best they can with the information and resources available to them. But the reality is that we don’t really know what to do, how to prepare, or what to expect.
I’m noticing that my anxiety is heightened every time I hear about changes to the “plan.” I’m also noticing that the things I usually recommend might not be possible this year. I’m a firm believer in helping kids know what to expect. I recommend talking through the day, practicing things through play, and “making the unknown known” wherever we can.
But how can we prepare when we don’t know what’s ahead? How do we answer questions we don’t know the answers to? How do we manage our own anxiety, and our child’s anxiety on top of it? How do we offer security and model confidence for the kids we care for, staying flexible and open as we adjust to this COVID-19 world?
Changes to the plan are beyond our control. And many elements of the plan itself, once it’s finalized, will be beyond our control too. We can’t change the fact that we don’t know what that first day will look like. We can’t change the fact that we are in the midst of a pandemic. We can’t remove the uncertainty of this school year.
So, how do we support children when everything is uncertain?
Last month I created a zine template to help your child remember their coping skills as they head into this new school year.
This month I wanted to make something for YOU, based on the one thing we CAN control: our response to the uncertainty and all it may bring.
During times of stress, I really like simple straightforward lists. So, I’ve created a list in case that’s helpful for you too. It’s 5 tips to keep in mind as you head into the mornings getting ready, the potential meltdowns at pick-up, and the bedtimes of these first September weeks.
5 Parenting Tips for Navigating Uncertainty:
# 1: Acknowledge what’s happening.
There is so much power in naming what’s going on. When we do this in front of children, it validates what they are already sensing. It helps them to trust their feelings, and to trust us that we will be honest with them. If you are feeling really anxious about school, but instead you just say that everything is great, it can be confusing for your child. They may be sensing anxiety from you, but your words don’t match what they are feeling.
You can acknowledge that things are hard in a developmentally appropriate way that doesn’t add worry for your child. You might say something really simple like:
“This year is different from other years, because we aren’t exactly sure what will happen on the first day. I feel a bit frustrated that I can’t tell you exactly what your first day of school will be like.” Or “It’s hard for me when the plans keep changing. I want to help you know what to expect. But everyone is working to figure out the best plan, and we will figure it out together.”
# 2: Make space for mixed up feelings.
In response to so much newness, change, and uncertainty, mixed feelings are pretty much guaranteed. So we can expect them, model them, and normalize them. A great way to identify feelings and share them with each other is to make a feelings chart together – check out this post for more information.
Another wonderful way to make space for mixed up feelings is to read books about them. My favourite book for this is called “I’m Happy-Sad Today” by Lory Britain.
An important thing to remember is that grief may be part of what your child is experiencing right now. They may be grieving their extra time at home with you, their “bubble mates” who are now in different school bubbles, or their increased freedom that they may have experienced over the past few months. They might also be grieving the way that school used to be, the things about school that they were looking forward to but that aren’t possible now, or the friend who isn’t in their class and who they can’t even play with at recess. Grief in children can be expressed as all kinds of big feelings, including anger, sadness, or silliness. Checking in about this with your child might be helpful.
# 3: Physical regulation before talking.
Regardless of your child’s specific personality and attitude towards school, I think it’s safe to say that returning to school in this new context will be a lot to process. It may be overwhelming, overstimulating, and disregulating in different ways. When the big feelings inevitably come to visit, it’s crucial to remember that our nervous systems need physical regulation before we can engage in meaningful conversation.
When we become heightened emotionally, we only have access to the more primitive part of our brain in charge of breathing, fight or flight, and intense emotion. We can’t access the more sophisticated thinking processes that allow us to listen to reason and logic. This is true for all humans, but is even more apparent for children whose more complex brain functions are still very much under construction (lots more about this in Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s wonderful book “The Whole-Brain Child”). Children are literally unable to hear and understand what we are saying when they are upset. Physical regulation allows their nervous system to calm down again, so that they can come back to a place where they have access to their more sophisticated thinking processes.
Instead of rationalizing why the ham sandwich was a perfectly reasonable thing to send for lunch while your child has a crying fit on the kitchen floor, think simple physical regulation instead. Sit down beside them on the floor and model taking deep breaths. Get them a glass of cold water. Challenge them to a race around the block. Give a tight hug and gently say “You’re really upset right now. I’ve got you, I’m right here with you.”
Once your child is calm again, you can chat about what happened. But I’m guessing that big feelings over the next few weeks might not have logical causes. It’s just our nervous system’s response to the huge amounts of change and uncertainty we are experiencing. So for the next little while, focus on physical regulation more than talking. Here’s a link to a resource by play therapist Lisa Dion with a bunch of great suggestions for physical regulation.
#4: Anchor to what hasn’t changed.
Even when it feels like everything is uncertain, there are always SOME things that haven’t changed. I’ve been practicing this with my little clients when they come back to the art room for the first time since the pandemic began. First we observe all the things that are different. There’s a curtain over the art shelf, all the pillows are gone, the toys are put away in sealed containers, we’re wearing masks, and the art cart is filled with cleaning supplies. But soon after naming these changes, we challenge ourselves to notice what has stayed the same. We are still together in the same room. The puppets are still here, inside a bin. All of the art supplies are still in their usual place behind the curtain. The decorations on the wall are the same. We can still see each other’s eyes and use this as a clue when the other person is smiling. We can still make art and play together during the session.
The most important elements of our shared experience haven’t changed. The things that haven’t changed become like an anchor that helps us to steady and secure ourselves in what feels like a new environment. They provide us with a sense of continuity and safety.
This will be true for you and your kiddo too. It might feel like a real challenge, but work together to come up with some things about school that have stayed the same. (Kids are actually really great at this game!) Maybe the outside of the school building is still the same. Or the routine with announcements and the national anthem. Or the playground in the school yard. Or your rituals as you walk to school. Let these things anchor you and your child as you adjust to the many things that have changed.
#5: Process through play!
If there are any calmer moments amidst the chaos, intentionally invite play into your day. Play is how children process new information and make sense of their experiences.
Set up your child’s action figures and initiate a “first day of school” game. Follow your child’s lead. This can be a great way to discover any worries or expectations your child may have about what’s to come. Or pick up a puppet and use the puppet to express some anxious feelings.
Pretend that the puppet is really worried about wearing a mask at school. Allow your child to comfort and instruct the puppet about what they need to do. This puts your child in the position of power, and allows them to practice the skill of comforting and helping themselves. The externalized advice or comfort they offer for the puppet can become the words they use to comfort or coach themselves through that same challenge. Check out my post about using puppets in parenting for more information about this concept!
And that’s it! I hope that these five ideas can be like a little map to support you as you support your kiddos through the next few weeks. If these ideas resonate with you, you could try writing the list on a post-it note and sticking it to your bathroom mirror or your fridge, or slipping it into your wallet. I’ll be right here with you over the next few weeks! I’m sticking my post-it note to the corner of my computer screen.
I’m sending so many warm thoughts your way as you navigate all of this uncertainty. And if there is anything I can do to support your family directly, please get in touch.
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT