By Jordan DeWald
with contributions by Mellissa Pierrard and Sandy Parker
The world changed for all of us in March of 2020. Imagine for a moment what it looked like for kids: school changed without warning, birthday parties were canceled, they didn’t get to see or hug their friends or grandparents, sports leagues were delayed, people started wearing masks and they were home all the time. Now the normal preparations for the new school year look drastically different.
As adults, we have had anxiousness, confusion, sadness and discomfort. Imagine how much more our kids have felt those things and more. Mellissa Pierrard, a teacher with Burleson ISD for twenty-one years, and Sandy Parker LCSW-S, a clinical therapist, have offered their experience and research to parents as they help their kids work through their emotions and prepare for the continuing changes.
Talk to your kids about what they are feeling. Be sure to validate their emotions, whether it’s fear that they can’t see friends’ faces or frustrations in not being able to hug. Those are big feelings that can be hard to identify and discuss for a child. Sandy encourages the use of “scripts.” These give the kids a voice about the topic and can head off behavior issues. For example, try using a practiced script for the feeling “I’m frustrated”: say instead “I miss touches.” “This is hard. We can do hard things.”
Children soak up your emotions and opinions and if you radiate positivity they will feel more at ease to do something that is foreign to them, like going to a new place where they can’t see someone’s face or starting the new school year. No matter your feelings about it, you want to set your kids up for a positive school experience from the beginning. Whether you choose to have them go to school in-person, learn online, or a hybrid, be positive in anything that you decide so your child has the confidence they need to know they can learn and feel secure.
This school year will look different so you can help your child adjust with less stress by helping them prepare ahead of time. Some kids may be required to wear masks, depending on their age or the location, but all kids are seeing people in masks. Talk to your kids about their feelings about that. Practice wearing a mask and showing them how to look at someone’s eyes and see what they look like when they smile behind the mask. You can make it a game! Draw attention to the eyes and how they change expression, making it fun to look for clues in someone’s eyes. Show them what six-foot distance looks like. Practice standing that far apart from someone and practice talking loud enough that someone can hear them from the far away or behind a mask.
Sandy has a principle she goes by across the board: I don’t remove something without replacing it with something else that serves the purpose. In this case, replacing hugs with something else connective such as air hugs, wink, or a unique air greeting ritual. Replace a typical touch with words, maybe some scripted ones. For example, instead of the usual pat on the back, say I care/I’m listening.
Mellissa encourages parents to look up resources and books if they want something tangible to help discuss masks and the virus. A simple search for “COVID-19 books for kids” provides several resources. She and Sandy recommend these specific resources: A Little Spot Stays Home by Diane Alber, a PDF book called The Story of the Oyster and the Butterfly: The Corona Virus and Me on anagomez.org, How to Talk to Your Kids about Coronavirus found at PBS.org, Talking to Kids about the Coronavirus Crisis found at childmind.org and resources found through the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU.