I tapped gently on the driver’s window while my toddler pressed his back to the passenger door inside the car.
“I don’t want to go!” he wailed.
We were just over a week into day care drop-off, and the excitement of new people and spaces had worn off. A disorienting world of masks and unrecognizable faces was sinking in.
For the past 14 months as the pandemic raged, we’d been isolated at home, extra cautious because of my chronic health issues. My 3-year-old was used to the sameness of the days and the constancy of our unit. And now everything was changing.
Long before the COVID-19 vaccine took full effect in the grown-ups, we’d been weighing the risks of sending him and his 8-year-old sister back to school and how to prepare for an unpredictable transition.
Now here we were and, despite feverish research and counseling support, I was in a day care parking lot, grasping at straws.
We had watched Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, advise the United States on the pandemic. But as Nikki Raymond, CEO of behavioral health and family preservation service provider Georgia HOPE noted, there was no one as visible speaking out about the inevitable mental health fallout — and what we should do for ourselves and our kids.
Surely there were other families now trying to help their kids adjust to the transition to reopening as vaccines became more widely available in the United States. Here’s what health and education experts said about managing your kids’ mental health while expanding their once limited circles.
Can our kids return to in-person learning?
“Quiet the noise, focus on who you trust and be honest about your comfort levels and family’s needs,” said Erica Fener-Sitkoff, clinical psychologist and executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a children’s advocacy nonprofit.
For starters, avoid comparing your options to other families’ options. Lean on trusted sources for decision-making, whether it’s your kid’s pediatrician, your own doctors (if you’re an immunocompromised adult), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the American Academy of Pediatrics, Fener-Sitkoff said.
Next, identify your boundaries. Be honest about what you’re comfortable with and what you’re not ready for yet. Write it down, come back to it, and make changes when you need to. Keeping a log will provide a clear reference and help instill confidence in what you decide, Fener-Sitkoff said.
Talk to your kids
Whether you have toddlers, tweens or teenagers, have age-appropriate conversations about the coming changes and how you can tackle them together.
Begin by acknowledging how you have supported each other alongside the deep losses. Talk about the boundaries you previously set to keep the family safe, how they are changing and why. For example, discuss shifting from not interacting with anyone outside the household to going to a camp with COVID-19 safety protocols.
Explain that additional changes will come as we learn more about the virus or as more people get vaccinated — or not — and that you’ll continue to talk as a family about those changes. And be sure to communicate what you can all still do to stay safe, Fener-Sitkoff said.
Answering your children’s questions transparently and checking in often about their experiences during the transition are key to helping them feel more secure in the decisions you’re making, even if peers’ families are doing things differently.
Come up with potential scenarios they may face, like being around others who are unmasked indoors if the family rule is to wear masks, and how your kids might respond, Fener-Sitkoff noted.
Also encourage kids to talk to others they feel safe with, whether it’s a friend, extended family member or support staff at school or camp.
Lower expectations for older kids
All kids need time to adjust to a new routine, said Maia Smith, longtime school social worker with Fulton County in Georgia, but parents of teens need to be extra mindful to respond to their struggles with empathy rather than punishment or restrictions.
That’s because parents tend to have higher expectations of older kids. Hit pause on that. Now is the time for grace and keeping the lines of communication open, even if your teen resists, Fener-Sitkoff said.
That could look like pulling your teenager out of their room to talk about friendships, feelings and school activities over a meal, Smith said.
When parents are also vulnerable about their own challenges with the transition, it helps kids feel less alone, said Brittney Walters, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director of school-based mental health at CHRIS 180, a behavioral health and child welfare service organization. (The letters “CHRIS” stand for creativity, honor, respect, integrity and safety.)
Start with small group activities
Ease kids into social gatherings with one-on-one time with a good friend or a small group of friends, said Cindy Simpson, CHRIS 180’s chief operating officer.
In my household, we went to the playground and saw a couple of friends from vaccinated families outdoors. A week before my toddler went back to day care, he met his new classmates and teachers during outdoor play at school, so he wasn’t completely unfamiliar on his first day.
Watch out for sensory processing issues. Kids who have had limited contact with others may be overstimulated in big groups or noisy spaces. Keep a pair of headphones on hand, Walters said.
Kids who have spent most of their time at home may have challenges adjusting to environmental temperature shifts, like getting uncomfortably cold in air-conditioned classrooms.
“Could it also be nerves? Maybe,” Walters said. But it doesn’t take much to be prepared with a pair of mittens indoors, even in the summer.
Create routine and rituals
Many younger kids — like my 3-year-old — go through separation anxiety during any transition, Fener-Sitkoff noted.
You can develop a new routine to reset their sense of stability, security and confidence in their new environment. The more predictable the routine, the more in control they feel.
Develop see-you-later and welcome-home rituals, simple ways of saying goodbye and celebrating being back together at day’s end. A forehead kiss. A high five. And try to connect screen-free every day for at least 30 minutes.
When either parent picks up our toddler from day care, we take a small treat and chat about his day while he nibbles away, reveling in the solo attention.
Just before I drop my 8-year-old off to spend time with her grandparents, I will kiss her palm, curl her fingers around it, put it to her heart and promise that’s where I’ll be if she misses us. We also came up with a safe word she could use with me if she wasn’t feeling OK and didn’t know how to express it. It’s become a catchall word for how we’re feeling in the moment.
“Kids remember the little things,” Fener-Sitkoff said. “They don’t cost anything, but they are heartfelt.”
Leverage your child’s school community
With more school districts putting mental health supports in place, teachers, principals or school counselors are good entry points to accessible help.
“It’s important to communicate concerns you have about your child returning,” said Smith, the school social worker. “Teachers want to help and they recognize that this is a difficult time.”
Encourage your school staff to look out for and talk to you about social and emotional gaps they might observe in your child, and ask how teachers are supported in recognizing signs of trauma and how kids will be directed.
Think beyond therapy to activities that foster enrichment and belonging like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, or ask the school about activities where costs and transportation may be offset by federal or grant funding.
The pandemic is far from over, and while we can’t fully predict its impact on our kids’ mental health, we can support them and hope that our best efforts are enough.