As children get ready to return to school, I am reminded of my family counseling work after 9/11. Kids came to school following that horrific day carrying tremendous trauma and stress with them. Not surprisingly, they used phrases and drew pictures much like their parents described to explain their own despair. It became clear that children needed to hear less TV news coverage of 9/11 and also the adult conversation about the event. Parents needed to self-monitor their own discussions about their fears with other adults in front of their children. Topics of terror needed to be changed to those emphasizing normalcy in the presence of their children.
I suspect the same is true for returning to school in this new COVID-19 time. Children need to hear conversation that normalizes wearing a mask and keeping distance. They do not need to hear phrases such as “this is awful,” “this is too hard,” “this is impossible.” In some other countries wearing a mask has been the norm to protect from pollutants in the air. You wear your shirt, you wear your shoes, you wear your mask. Be careful not to emphasize the impossible such as “do not lose that special mask.” They will. And the grief and anxiety associated with the loss will add to the stress of this new normal.
Help the process. Help your children to reduce their stress in this new world. Stop the conversations of doom and despair in their presence. They will absorb it and create pathways in their brain for future anxiety. Help your children to create a readiness to take on the challenges of today’s world without the anxiety of your own experience. Reframe this time to be a new experience for them that they will manage the best they can. Their future years will be grateful.
Christine Mobley Ketcham, Middlebury